Fuel Poverty

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15, 16 April 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly believes it is unacceptable that 290 people in Northern Ireland die each winter due to cold homes; accepts that the Warmer Healthier Homes fuel poverty strategy is over a decade old and is no longer fit for purpose; calls on the Executive to include a clear target for eradicating fuel poverty in the next Programme for Government; and further calls on the Minister for Communities to work with his Executive colleagues to establish a fuel poverty task force and to present an updated fuel poverty strategy before the end of this year, with specific commitments to introduce a cap on energy prices, system price protections for home heating oil customers and proposals for social tariffs to protect the most vulnerable.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

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 in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Please, open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is an important motion on eradicating fuel poverty. I begin by thanking the various groups that met with SDLP colleagues this morning, in the Great Hall, and others who we have been engaging with over the past number of months and, indeed, years on this very important issue. Those groups and charities are vital and do huge work in our communities to support the most vulnerable. They have been strong and powerful voices, particularly when this institution was not functioning for prolonged periods, and they have been extremely resilient in the face of considerable cuts and challenges to their own organisations, even though they have been advocating daily in the interests of ordinary people.

The issue is a huge challenge for society. We, as MLAs, continually — on a daily basis — hear the challenges that our constituents face in relation to fuel poverty and the rising costs of fuel, particularly of late, when we have seen energy companies drive their pricing through the roof, to the extent that it is entirely unaffordable and has had considerable adverse effects on ordinary people — not just the vulnerable, but working families who have been driven to the brink and who are very concerned about the issue. The Department for Communities has defined poverty as a household that spends more than 10% of its income on energy costs, but the Department's figures show that, in 2021, the rate of fuel poverty was 24%, which is about 179,000 households. That is up from 18% in 2018. Those figures from 2021 are from before we had a cost-of-living crisis. In 2021, when we were coming through the worst effects of the pandemic, the SDLP was talking loudly about the cost-of-living crisis that was about to hit hard. That is exactly what it did. Our people are reeling from its consequences and from how it has put them into significant financial difficulty with regard to the things that most people should, and normally would, take for granted.

In May 2022, the Consumer Council produced a report that claimed that the actual number suffering from fuel poverty could be as high as 34%, and the Fuel Poverty Coalition suggests that figures are closer to 40%. Those are damning figures. They are a hugely shocking and real insight into the challenges that exist in our constituencies. I do not think that any MLA would disagree about the consequences of such stark figures and the impacts that they have on our community. That same report states that around 30% of excess winter deaths in Northern Ireland can be attributed to cold homes. Indeed, as the motion outlines, it is estimated that 290 people in Northern Ireland die each winter as a result of cold homes.

As Members will know, the fuel poverty strategy is out of date. It has not been updated since 2011, when it was introduced by my former colleague the then social justice Minister Alex Attwood. We are now in 2024, some 13 years on. I am sure that Members will understand and appreciate that things have changed dramatically in society as a consequence of the ever-changing situation with rising costs for energy, food and every aspect of human life. That strategy is most certainly out of date and needs to be updated to reflect the challenges of today's society.

The truth is that, in 2024, many families in Northern Ireland are in fuel poverty, more so than ever before. That is a major challenge for the House, but it must be a priority for the Executive. Members have stood up and talked about the importance of looking after the public purse as its custodians. I appreciate that, but nothing is more important than dealing with poverty when people are struggling to make ends meet.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he share my concern that, when the Executive were down, parties made various day-1 commitments, for example, on an anti-poverty strategy, and, when they have had the chance to vote for those exact commitments, they have failed to do so? Does he share my concern about that double-speak?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree with the Member. I could state a long list, but my time to say what I could on this particular issue is limited.

The truth is that, when people needed us, we were not here. The Executive could have helped and assisted countless families. Often, in the House, when it is easy to do so, we point to the Tories and their austerity agenda, but the truth is that simple things were not being done in the House, where they should have been done. People's lives and needs should have been prioritised, and vulnerable people continued to struggle. The truth is that the Executive have failed. They have failed when they have existed and they absolutely failed when they collapsed. As a consequence, people have suffered.

There are huge challenges for the North. We are hugely reliant on heating oil. Across the North, 68% of homes rely on it. Rural constituencies like mine are discriminated against. According to Consumer Council research, 82% of homes in those areas rely on home heating oil. The market is unregulated, so it is unchallengeable and, therefore, gets away with charging extortionate amounts of money, forcing people into more difficulty. As I have outlined, Northern Ireland experiences some of the highest energy prices in the UK. When we should have been in the House discussing and trying to deal with those exact problems, we were outside talking about them. Fuel poverty has been exacerbated for people because we were not here to even attempt to mitigate it in any way.

Housing stock is not efficient. It is clear from discussions in the House in recent weeks that there are huge concerns about the efficiency of housing stock. Only 63% had cavity wall insulation, and the housing stock was non-compliant with current industry standards. Only 481 Housing Executive homes have had cavity wall insulation works within the past five years. I am sure that people would agree that that is a ridiculous failing as well.

The working poor are the group that I would say are struggling most because, with the rising costs of inflation and the fact that wages have not gone up, they are being pushed further and further into poverty and struggle. Carers NI has flagged up that 31% of unpaid carers are cutting back on essentials, such as heating, and that rises to 42% of those who are on carer's allowance; people who save the public purse a fortune by looking after their loved ones or people in the community daily. Eighteen per cent of carers are struggling to afford utility bills. Those statistics are real-life examples of how people are struggling with the rising cost of living and as a consequence of the failure of the House to bring forward a strategy that would actually lay out a plan to deal with those challenges.

The SDLP supports the work of the Fuel Poverty Coalition and its call to help the worst off, prevent postcode lotteries and embed an emergency response. The SDLP would like to see an upgrade of the fuel poverty strategy before the end of this year. We need to see a plan. No one in the House would disagree with that, but it needs to happen now: we cannot just talk about it. We also want the strategy to include, as outlined in the motion, a cap on energy prices, price protections for home heating oil customers and social tariffs for the most vulnerable. We want to see an increase in the winter fuel payment, which has not increased since 2011. The Communities Minister has the power to review the rate of that payment. I appreciate the financial challenge, but that is a priority issue. I hope that the Minister will feel strongly, as I do, about that, and I urge him to review that rate.

We need a cross-departmental fuel poverty task force, with all-party support, to bring a laser-like focus to the issue. We also need a warm homes discount scheme, similar to the one that is available in England, which provides a £150 credit on your bill and is of benefit to low-income families in particular. We also want earlier notification of billing by utility companies to give people due notice, because they are being given those bills and all of a sudden are not able to pay them. On the issue of extortionate utility rates, I received a gas bill recently that said that my bill was about to be cut by 21%. How can they jump from one end to the other? It is entirely ridiculous how they have been able to punish the most vulnerable in our society. This place needs a new strategy to tackle fuel poverty. The current strategy, which is 13 years out of date, is no longer sufficient and has not been for some time. Minister, we need to get on with that important job.

I will conclude with a quote before commending the motion to the House:

"Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity ... It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life."

That is a quote from Nelson Mandela, and it is very relevant to the people in our society who are struggling on a daily basis to make ends meet. We are elected to solve problems, and we can work collectively to do that. There is no greater challenge for our society than poverty and its impact on every aspect of our society.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 12:45, 16 April 2024

I thank the proposer of the motion for the opportunity to speak on the issue today. The cost of heating homes to a reasonable standard, like the two-child limit that we have just discussed, is another key driver of poverty. Our over-reliance on oil in the North, with limited alternative options, especially for rural dwellers, makes us particularly vulnerable to price rises. For people on low incomes, who are already paying a higher rate when they order smaller quantities, those price rises can be really difficult to absorb.

We saw the impact of that acutely when energy and food prices spiralled and we found ourselves firmly in a cost-of-living crisis. Many people turned down their heating temperatures to try to reduce usage, and others turned it off altogether, using it only when absolutely necessary or relying instead on blankets and small electric heaters. As we are all too aware, the climate in this part of the world means that there are very few months in any given year where some level of heating is not required. For too many people, that has meant, and it continues to mean, living in cold homes or cutting back on other essentials. That should not be a reality in this day and age, let alone a growing reality.

We know the implications of living in a cold home for people's physical and mental health, especially for young children, older people and those with pre-existing conditions, particularly if it is for a prolonged period. We also know that the final cost-of-living payment for people who were eligible was in February, which means that there is now less financial support available for those who have the least.

While energy costs have reduced slightly, they still remain high. I concur with the motion, which asks for an updated fuel poverty strategy. Schemes such as the affordable warmth scheme, and the boiler replacement scheme before it ended, have been extremely helpful in supporting people to improve their energy efficiency, but there is also a need for new, innovative, practical and sensible solutions. Those items listed in the motion are certainly worthy of consideration as part of that, but so too are solutions that ensure a just transition as focus turns towards decarbonisation, increasing our use of renewable energy and reducing the use of fossil fuels. A chairde,

[Translation: friends]

we need solutions that work for people in the private rented sector, who lack the agency to choose or change the type of heating system that they have and are, therefore, more limited in what they can do to increase their energy performance. In the short term, there has to be action on fuel prices or the financial support provided to offset them. That can be done by the British Government's redirecting into people's pockets the money that was raised by the windfall tax on the excess profits that were made by large energy companies. Ultimately, an updated fuel strategy needs to align with the overarching anti-poverty strategy, as poverty does not exist in isolation. We support the motion.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

The DUP fully endorses the need for a new long-term and cross-cutting approach to tackling fuel poverty. Rocketing energy prices have brought renewed focus to the crisis facing many, but, in truth, those problems have been building for some time. The Communities Minister is leading the process of preparing a new strategic approach to delivering real change in the fight against fuel poverty. Those ambitious plans will see the public consultation on a new strategy launch in the autumn. For context, the Housing Executive commissioned the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to model estimates of fuel poverty up to 2021. The study was published in October last year and concluded that there had been an increase in the rate of fuel poverty from 22% of households in 2016 to around 24% of households in 2021. That equated to an increase in the number of households in fuel poverty from 160,000 in 2016 to 179,000 in 2021. Overall, the combined effect of fuel price increases and energy efficiency improvements was a net increase in the mean household fuel costs of 8% between 2016 and 2021. The largest change in fuel prices was seen for electricity, with standard electricity prices increasing by 29% between 2016 and 2021.

It is clear that the 2011 strategy was somewhat overtaken by legislative developments on energy and climate change, and it is crucial that policy development takes account of those targets in a way that is fair and compassionate towards vulnerable and low-income households. Financial stress is not limited to those who are in receipt of benefits. In our low-income working households across Northern Ireland, which include many front-line workers, parents sometimes are forced to choose between whether to heat or eat or to go without so that their children's most basic needs can be met. That is not acceptable. The squeezed middle should not continue to miss out on multiple layers of support. That has to be addressed as part of the arrangements for any new energy efficiency scheme.

In the coming weeks and months, a series of workshops and focus groups will be held with stakeholders to dig deeper into what form the new strategy and scheme should take, nail down a definition of fuel poverty and discuss how and by whom any new interventions should be led. It is critical that there is close engagement and consultation with those who are personally affected by the existing affordable warmth scheme.

The proposal for a fuel poverty task force has been put forward in the motion with the best of intentions, but we are not convinced that it will provide added value, given that the Department has already set out a robust plan to engage and consult with communities, households, experts and stakeholders. Some events have already taken place in the consultation. Similarly, we are not persuaded that there is merit in prejudging the outcome of the consultation processes that have commenced by passing a motion in the House that dictates that policy such as a cap on energy prices must be part of the final strategy. That is counterproductive, and, whilst all ideas and proposals ought to be weighed up, we should not force the Executive or individual Ministers down a certain route until the consultation process has concluded.

The DUP is also clear that the development of a cross-cutting, all-of-government strategy to tackle fuel poverty over the next 10 years can be no substitute for effective and operable methods of providing emergency support to those households that need it most. It is appropriate to recognise the contribution of our membership of the United Kingdom to tackling fuel poverty. Despite being told that it could not and would not happen in the absence of the devolved institutions, households in Northern Ireland received a non-repayable payment totalling £600 last year to help with energy bills. In addition, the energy price guarantee in Northern Ireland reduced the typical household's fuel/energy bill by hundreds of pounds.

Let me be clear that, whilst I expressed misgivings about some aspects of the motion's wording, the DUP will support it.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Members, the Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Kellie Armstrong.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.56 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —