Cost-of-living Crisis

Matter of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 14th March 2022.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:00 pm, 14th March 2022

Mr John O'Dowd has been given leave to make a statement on the cost-of-living crisis that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should indicate that by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted, and I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I wish the Speaker and the Minister well. I know that a number of other Members are unwell too.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are children who went to school this morning who will have felt heat for the first time since Friday. That is not because they have bad or uncaring parents but because their parents simply cannot afford to heat their home and feed their children. That is the situation that we are in in 2022. Working parents and parents who are, for whatever reason, on benefits are making decisions daily, if not hourly, about how to keep their family warm and fed.

Pensioners spend all day in bed to keep warm.

Students study in cold flats and houses because they cannot afford to turn on the heating. Families that can afford to turn on the gas spend £40 a week to do that for three hours a day. All this goes on while the Executive, if functioning, could immediately issue £300 million into the public's hands, pockets and wallets. Instead, we have Jeffrey's world, where opposition to the protocol is more important than the needs of men, women and children. In Jeffrey's world, you listen more to the Loyalist Communities Council than to the pleas of citizens who are cold in their homes and cannot afford to eat. In that world, where the brigadiers' bellies and oil tanks are full, people grow cold.

What does it take for the DUP to wise up? What does it take to ensure that the £300 million that is available to men, women and children who are cold and hungry is distributed? What does it take for the DUP Members to do their work, go back to the Executive and look after people? I note that the latest recruit to the DUP Benches, Mr Rankin, thinks that he is Clint Eastwood. I saw that on his Twitter account this morning. In my opinion, there are enough cowboys in the DUP without adding another. What we need is a First Minister working along with a deputy First Minister, delivering for the needs of people, and that is what has to happen today. There must be no more hiding, no more antics. Go back to the Executive and look after the people you are here to serve.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I also give my best wishes to the Speaker and all the other Members who are unwell at present.

The cost-of-living crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland requires parties to make decisions in the interests of all our people, not to peddle division. It requires solutions to be found, not the creation of obstacles through political rhetoric. The simple reality is that, if there is a political will amongst Members, there is a way to deliver much-needed support to those most in need.

To deliver support, you need a plan, and the DUP has one. We have tabled proposals, both in London and here in the Assembly, for support for households, families and communities across Northern Ireland. We have proposed to the Chancellor that he cut duties on petrol and diesel, cut VAT on petrol and diesel, cancel the increase in National Insurance, pause plans to remove the rebate on red diesel and deliver targeted support to households in hardship. We have called on parties here to support our plan to discount rates bills for households, extend eligibility for the energy support scheme and introduce targeted support for households to combat rising prices.

Party leaders have been engaged extensively in finding solutions, and that will be the template for success. The DUP is always prepared to look at all solutions, including legislation here and at Westminster. The problem is not the lack of a First Minister but the lack of political agreement from some to table and support a plan that delivers for hard-pressed households across Northern Ireland. Actions, not words, will help those in need. Decisions, not delays, will provide the mechanisms to deliver this support. A plan, not political positioning, is the basis of moving that forward.

The DUP warned the pro-protocol parties last September that the First Minister would step down if the protocol remained. They ignored the calls from every unionist party. They ignored the fact that the protocol continued to raise prices and inhibited Westminster from delivering support schemes for hard-pressed households on a UK-wide basis. Those parties can continue to ignore the political reality, or they can join us in supporting solutions that get support to those most in need as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland need and want us all to move forward together, and we are committed to getting support in place and out to those most in need as soon as possible.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

What a couple of years this has been. People have come through a global pandemic that has had a devastating impact, physically, mentally and financially. We have lurched straight from that into this cost-of-living crisis, which shows no signs of letting up. With the current events in Ukraine and Russia, people have gone from struggling to struggling and panicking.

People whom I meet have no idea how they will continue to heat their homes and feed their families. People need help now, and our Government are not able to help them now; in fact, we do not have a Government. We have heard from many Ministers about how their hands are tied due to the completely unacceptable, illogical and damaging position of the DUP. Of course, the simplest thing would be for the DUP to put people ahead of politics and nominate a First Minister. If it does not do that, however — we heard again over the weekend that it will not — we cannot just shrug our shoulders and point our fingers.

Ministers have said that they will leave no stone unturned in trying to find a way to help people. We have £300 million that could be used to do just that. Well, the SDLP has found the stone and turned it; we have found a way. It is not an easy way, but it is not an impossible one. On Friday and over the weekend, I engaged with colleagues from the other Executive parties. Today, I will seek out and speak to smaller parties and independent Members to get support for an emergency private Member's Bill that will amend the Financial Assistance Act 2009 to unlock the ability for Ministers to define, design and deliver schemes to help people in the absence of an Executive or First Minister and deputy First Minister.

We have a lot of work to do, and we do not have a lot of time in which to do it. The Bill Office has assured me that it is almost impossible to do it, but, as we know, politics is the art of the possible. I appeal to all of you for support and assistance. For once, let us put politics to the side and put people first.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

The cost-of-living crisis, which is pushing every household across Northern Ireland beyond the brink, is not new. We have known about it for quite some time, and — I will be frank and honest — the response has been inadequate. The Assembly came together in November 2021 to call for an emergency energy payment scheme, and it is only rolling out now. Although that payment is welcome, it excludes a huge number of individuals across our society. Practical and appropriate steps can be taken. Some of those were outlined by the Member to my left, the Chair of the Committee for Communities, who, alongside me and Members from every party, has called on the Communities Minister to do more to provide support and intervention for households and families across Northern Ireland.

We have also collectively called on the Communities Minister to establish a fuel poverty task force. One thing that we do well in Northern Ireland is to put in place short-term measures; short-term measures that do not have long-term outputs. We need a fuel poverty task force that can look at short-, medium- and long-term interventions to support households and families.

The reality is that short-term, sticking-plaster measures without adhesive do not cut it. We can go further, and we need to go further. Yes, the finance is there, but we need to hear about what we will bring forward to address this. We heard about the energy payment support scheme, but we found out only at the eleventh hour that many individuals will be excluded and that HMRC will not take a payment forward. There need to be appropriate measures. My party will not be found wanting when it comes to engaging with colleagues across the House about our response to the cost-of-living crisis.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I thank the Member for tabling this Matter of the Day for debate. It is vital that we discuss the current crisis.

Nobody in the Chamber needs £200 to help them to pay their electricity or gas bill. That is the reality. Any money that the Assembly can distribute — it should distribute it — has to go to the people in Northern Ireland who are in the most need. Not everyone in Northern Ireland is in need; we need to recognise that. Schemes that come forward need to be targeted completely at those who are in need.

Much has been made of the £300 million that seems to be sloshing around in budgets here. Let us not forget that that £300 million will not pay the fuel bills of the people of Northern Ireland. It may make a small contribution to those bills, but it is also there to bail out Departments, which will be struggling to complete their budgets in this financial year and the next.

It is vital that the Assembly rolls out appropriate and targeted schemes. The last thing that we need is another renewable heat incentive (RHI)-type scandal when it comes to legislation in Northern Ireland. That is why we should use and expand existing schemes. Given the number of homes in Northern Ireland that use home heating oil, we must bring it under the control of the regulator in order to allow prices to be regulated. Certain issues need to be raised in Westminster. There needs to be a windfall tax against those who have made large profits, particularly in the fuel industries, and for that money to be redistributed. It is shameful that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is borrowing our money in order to pay us money and that we will have to pay it all back.

We need to look to imaginative schemes that will deliver for people in Northern Ireland. It is vital that no child in Northern Ireland goes to school hungry or cold, as Mr O'Dowd mentioned. That can be resolved by making payments available immediately to those families who are in most need. Unlike the high street scheme, for example, which gave everyone £100, it needs to be targeted. Welcome though that scheme might have been, it was totally useless in targeting the actual needs of people in Northern Ireland. I know people in my constituency who spent their £100 on topping up their electricity and gas. It is now long since gone. There is an urgent need to tackle that problem. I encourage the Assembly to start to think about creative ways in which we can achieve that.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 12:15 pm, 14th March 2022

I am grateful that the Matter of the Day has been allowed to be debated. Today, we are being warned that the cost of living could rise by as much as 10% by the autumn for some of the poorest households in the UK. We have all seen the soaring costs of fuel in our homes and at the pumps, but, as others have said, that does not affect the likes of us who sit here. We have seen the increased costs of food and basic essentials. More and more people are struggling to make ends meet. We have seen an increase in food bank use from already inflated numbers. In 2020-21, 78,000 people in Northern Ireland accessed an emergency food bank. That is an absolute disgrace.

People here are continually being locked into poverty by the failures of the Executive. As people struggle to feed their families and heat their homes, Stormont is allegedly sitting on £300 million of emergency funding that cannot be spent due to the collapse of the Executive and some people's unwillingness to do their jobs. However, as others have said, that is not a silver bullet. There are hundreds of millions of pounds sitting there that could go to people if we were able to make decisions for them based on need.

It is an entirely avoidable situation. One party could change that. It could nominate a First Minister and start to put people's needs and welfare at the centre of our decisions. That goes across the Executive. The suggestion to cut rates is ridiculous. The most vulnerable people in society will not benefit from that at all. Soaring living costs are not being met by increased wages or an uplift in social security payments, with people having nothing left in their household budgets. Then we have the profiteering of fossil fuel companies. Where is the windfall tax? The heightened global insecurity and, now, war in Ukraine cannot be dealt with without addressing our economy's dependence on fossil fuels. We must have a just transition. We must also stop building cold homes.

Last week, the DUP leader had the absolute audacity to call a meeting of Ministers and party leaders to discuss how to spend money in the face of the growing poverty that people in Northern Ireland are facing. It is the job of the Executive whom his party pulled down, yet we have another manufactured crisis, with people having to choose whether to heat or eat. That is the crisis, and that should be the focus.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Clearly, we are not just in a crisis but in an energy emergency that needs to be addressed urgently.

My office, like that of many in the House, has been inundated with people from all walks of life who are very concerned about the impact that the energy crisis is having on them. Working families are struggling. It is costing the carers in our community money to travel to work. They did a fantastic job of supporting our people throughout the pandemic, but they cannot even get to work because they cannot afford to put fuel in their cars.

Others also cannot afford to travel to work because of the cost of fuel. Pensioners are sitting in cold homes. People who have worked their entire lives and contributed to this society are worried about whether they can heat their homes next week.

Even people on universal credit are concerned. We warned the House about that cruel benefit. It has left people living on or below the breadline for some time, and the situation has worsened because there is absolutely no flexibility in the system.

Everybody is struggling. Our businesses are struggling, and our entire community is struggling, but where is the DUP? It is trying to find some quick fix to a problem that it created by abdicating its responsibilities and walking out of the Assembly. I can safely say that the families in its constituencies and in all our constituencies would far rather be able to heat their homes and feed their children today than worry about the distraction over a protocol. That is the reality of the situation.

I hope that the days of the veto over the House are long gone. The messing has to stop. People elect every Member of the House to find solutions to the problems that we face, and there is no greater problem than that of poverty. We are elected to lift people out of poverty and improve their lives, and we could solve the problem today — right now — if the DUP would swallow the lump in its throat and get in and do the job that it has been elected to do.

This is a very serious situation: make no mistake about that. I assure people that, if there is a solution to be found, it can be found in the House. People are furious, and they are disgusted. They want a solution to this, and parties in the House can find it. The SDLP is proposing solutions to the crisis, as are others, but it is very clear that, when the solution is needed, the DUP is sitting on its hands.

Equally, on the other side of the House, we see that Sinn Féin, in the South of this island, has said that the €200 payment is not enough, but, here in the North, that £200 is more than sufficient. That needs to be addressed. We need more money going into people's homes. We need more money now to support people through this crisis so that they can feed their children, feed their families and get some heat and comfort.

It is a good job that we are in the month that we are in — March — and headed for the summer. Imagine if we were headed into the heart of winter when facing this crisis. I would have no confidence that some parties in the House would move too swiftly to resolve it. It is about putting people first. That is why we were elected. Swallow this now, get on with it and put people first.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Get back into the Executive. Put heat back into people's homes and food on their table.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

The cost of living is out of control. Hard-working families are really struggling, and we are facing the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation. Working families are buckling under the pressure of the exploding cost of heating a home, running a car and putting food on the table. Five hundred litres of oil cost over £600, the price at the pumps in my constituency is among the highest in the North, with some having to pay close to £2·00 for a litre of diesel. That added burden is making it impossible for families to keep their kids in new clothes, make improvements around the house or, God forbid, put a few pounds away for the future.

Sinn Féin has brought the issue before the House today, but the question has to be asked: what has it been doing for the last six months? The Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities control the purse strings and the allocation of welfare. What have they done?

Universal credit has been cut, emergency winter fuel payments are nowhere to be seen, the £200 fuel payment has been rejected, and what about the £300 million pot on the Executive table? Just point at the DUP. Meanwhile, the SDLP is working to find the stone that can be turned over to unlock that money and give it to the people and families who need it.

The SDLP has called for a cap on the profits of energy companies. That has been dismissed. Families are on their hands and knees. They are in need of urgent and immediate help. The SDLP is driving emergency legislation to unlock that £300 million, as I said, which must be made accessible to the families who need it and to the people on the ground who are struggling, on their hands and knees, and need that money. It has been stopped because of the DUP, which has exonerated itself of all responsibility. The DUP is the despicable unionist party. That is what that action is: despicable.

The big two parties in our Executive twist themselves into all sorts of shapes to change rules and laws when it benefits them and their mates — "themselves alone". However, when it comes to stretching themselves to give breathing space to working families, they sit in silence, point fingers at each other and do not help people who need help now.