Fuel Poverty

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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

Members, we will now resume the debate on eradicating fuel poverty.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I can say that we will support the Opposition motion on eradicating fuel poverty. I can also confirm that I am very aware that the Minister's officials have been holding fuel poverty strategy pre-consultation meetings to look at the climate change objectives. My staff attended one of those meetings. I have to say that it was very helpful, resourceful and thought-provoking.

As the motion states, we should be working to eradicate fuel poverty and the next Programme for Government should include clear targets to achieve that. How we achieve that was discussed at the pre-consultation event. Will it be person-led or stock-led? To explain: do we deal with people or homes? We could certainly provide people with money to deal with their bills, as we have in the past. We could cap bills, or we could have price protections in place. Those are some of the short-term actions that we could take. Fixing cold homes is another way.

The other thing that we need to consider is who we will help first. I am sure that many in the House have received papers from Age NI and others that outline the issues that there are for people who are at home during the day, are often quite immobile and who depend on having the heating on to help them. I think of older people and people with disabilities who are immobile. While those people may well be asset rich, they are income poor. We have to consider how we will help them. Others have mentioned rural homes. I live in one of them. At the moment, I am dependent on oil. We need to bring oil into line with other fuel supply under the Utility Regulator. That will not be for the Minister for Communities to deal with; it will be for the Minister for the Economy. That is a longer-term issue.

The other thing — it is close to my heart — is what we will do about retrofitting or establishing Passivhaus-standard homes across Northern Ireland. I have spent a good bit of time, I have to say, going around looking at options for retrofitting. It will not come cheap. The fabric-first approach that is already being taken by the Housing Executive, for instance, to put insulation into homes goes some way towards helping with that. Recently, I met the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. We talked about its heat pilot scheme. It is targeted at 300 homes across Northern Ireland. That is very welcome, but it is focused on gas-fuelled homes. If we are serious about eradicating fuel poverty, we have to help people to move away from fossil fuels so that they can heat their homes in the most cost-efficient way. I have seen amazing results in retrofitted homes that I have visited. One lady with a grown-up family went from paying £500 on her oil bill every couple of months to paying out no more than £20 a fortnight for her heat and light, and that is absolutely incredible.

It has been brought up at the fuel poverty strategy pre-consultation events that we need a new definition of fuel poverty. That could be taken forward by the task force that is mentioned in the motion, or in the consultation that takes place on the fuel poverty strategy. Yesterday was a good example of how the House can come together to agree on an anti-poverty strategy. That strategy, which will look at child poverty, could also include the fuel poverty work that needs to be done. We need to think about fuel poverty as a way to move forward on our climate change objectives.

I welcome the motion, which is very timely. We have nearly run out of time to get this work done. We have people who will no longer get a cost-of-living support from the UK Government in the year ahead. That additional money, which they have had in the past, will not be there this winter. We need to think about how we are going to do things in the short term and the long term. As one of the many MLAs who were able to roll it out, I pay tribute to the Bryson House support scheme, which has helped people with their energy costs. That community and voluntary sector support scheme has delivered support directly to people to help them to meet their bills. I hope that this is the last year that we have to do that, and that we can do something more proactively in the long term to help to reduce those bills forever.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the SDLP for tabling the motion. At the outset, I confirm that the Ulster Unionist Party will support it.

It is imperative that we confront the stark reality that is facing many households across Northern Ireland: the exorbitant cost of energy, coupled with rising prices for necessities, has pushed more and more families and individuals into the depths of fuel poverty. This is a crisis that demands our immediate attention and concerted action. The statistics paint a grim picture, indicating a worrying trend of increased hardship among households. We have already heard today from the likes of Carers NI and from those who are lobbying on behalf of elderly people and those who are vulnerable just how stark the statistics are and how much the impact is beginning to bite.

The cost of energy remains prohibitively high, leaving a significant proportion of our population struggling to make ends meet. It is incumbent on all of us to address immediately the pressing issue with urgency and to create solutions to alleviate the hardship. We all acknowledge that we cannot have a silo mentality and leave it just to the Minister for Communities, who, I know, is dedicated to resolving this matter. It will be a cross-cutting issue, and one that will require a constructive and collegiate approach from all Members and all Executive Departments.

In the short term, we must implement immediate measures to provide relief to those who are grappling with fuel poverty. That includes targeted financial assistance to help households meet their energy bill costs during periods of acute need. Additionally, we need to invest in energy-efficiency grants and subsidies to improve energy efficiency in homes, thereby reducing energy consumption and lowering costs.

Looking beyond immediate relief, we need to focus on sustainable solutions in the medium term. Community-driven initiatives and domestic retrofitting programmes, as we have just heard, can reduce energy expenses and improve insulation in homes, thereby helping to mitigate fuel poverty in the long run. I am aware of an ongoing pilot being run by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which can be a game changer, but it is, obviously, massively cost-prohibitive, so funding for that is key. Structural change is also necessary to address fuel poverty effectively in the long term. That will include policy reforms to address the root causes of escalating energy costs and promote the addition of renewable energy sources and infrastructure.

The proposer of the motion touched on regulation. We have an insatiable appetite for home heating oil in Northern Ireland, but it is unregulated. The fact is that consumers are potentially paying more because it is not being regulated. I would like home heating oil, bottled gas, which is also massively more expensive, and bottled home heating oil to be brought into the Utility Regulator's remit: that could have a massive impact.

I want to take this opportunity to commend the ongoing efforts of my party colleague Andy Allen, who, for more than two years, has been calling for the establishment of a fuel poverty task force to support vulnerable families and individuals who are dealing with soaring prices. Andy took the lead on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, hosting, at the height of the energy crisis, two round-table workshops, which included representatives of the energy companies, the voluntary and community sector and the energy regulator and other political representatives to look at how urgent support could be delivered. The fact that the creation of a fuel poverty task force is contained in the Opposition motion shows just how much of an impact Andy made.

We must act swiftly and decisively to alleviate the burden of fuel poverty on our communities. It is only through cross-departmental commitment and collaborative efforts that we can deliver meaningful solutions and support those in need. I support the motion.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

The crisis due to the cost of living and fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is one that I have seen consistently in my constituency office. After housing, it was the second most frequent issue that was brought to me over the winter months, and I pay tribute to the Bryson House initiative that my colleague Kellie Armstrong mentioned. Without that community and voluntary intervention, many, many more of my North Antrim constituents would have had a much colder winter, especially given the cessation of schemes like the affordable warmth scheme.

In my first winter as an MLA, I cannot deny how impactful it has been to see such a steady stream of people who are living with energy and fuel poverty issues. I had a young mother who turns her oven on and opens the door and gets the kids to sit in the kitchen because she cannot afford a full oil tank because it is such an outlay in one go. I heard of nights where a much older couple would prefer to go bed with hot water bottles and extra blankets than sit up and waste, as they would say, the heating and the electricity to keep the lights on. The situation in 2024 is horrendous, especially in a country like ours.

This crisis is affecting the most vulnerable, forcing them into the absolutely impossible decision of whether to heat their homes or put food on the table. That has absolutely no place in a modern, compassionate society. With an estimated 45% of households in Northern Ireland experiencing some type of fuel poverty, including those who have never experienced fuel poverty before, it really is shocking that one in 10 households in Northern Ireland is compelled to skip meals to ensure that it has enough to pay for its energy bills.

One of the key factors that we have been looking into feeds back into that thought of having some form of audit of poverty and looking into the costs that are outlaid on our public services and our public spending. We could then look at how to offset some of those costs to try to invest to save. That is really what I am getting at. If we look at the cost of fuel poverty, in particular to our health service, we see that there is a clear correlation between excess winter deaths, inadequate thermal insulation in housing and low indoor temperatures. We see those deaths soar during the winter months, and they are directly associated with increased cardiovascular mortality and elevated blood pressure.

Mounting evidence suggests that children who reside in cold homes are over twice as likely to suffer from respiratory aliments compared with those in warmer environments. Cold exposure does not just exacerbate such existing conditions as well as arthritis and rheumatism, it heightens susceptibility to minor ailments. When you have the flu, not having a warm home to recuperate in turns it into something that is so much more dangerous. In essence, fuel poverty subjects households to lethal coldness despite being absolutely preventable. That is the point that we want to make. We have to put money into some of those initiatives and there has to be a way that we can alleviate the problem with public spending. That money will then be saved across the board, both in the short term, when we look at the winter excess deaths, and in the longer term.

I thank the Members who tabled the motion for bringing the matter to the Chamber and not waiting until we got closer to winter to do so.

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

I will speak to the motion from an economy and energy perspective. I echo a lot of the comments that were made by Sian, Kellie, John, Colm and the proposer of the motion. I want to look at some long-term stuff as well as practical support that we can do now.

I will start at the beginning. We live on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, and, moving forward, we should have little or no need for fossil fuels. It is very simple. With new technology quickly advancing, we have all the natural resources at our disposal, and we must be looking to develop our capacity to the point where we can actually export energy rather than aim to produce 70% or 80% of our own requirement. As well as that, we should be rolling out progressive technology around biogas and hydrogen. If we do that, we could eliminate fuel poverty in the longer term. Alliance believes that that is the energy target that we need to be delivering, and it is an issue that we need to continue to work on with an all-island approach.

If we look at what we can deliver straight away — some of this has been said — we see that that includes upgrading the insulation of our houses and that improving airtightness is another way to reduce the amount of warm air that leaks out and the cold air and draughts that come in. We can and should help with such measures, which would drastically reduce the energy that is needed in the first place and protect the most vulnerable people. We should start retrofitting their homes first. Our constituents need us to make that wider change in order to transform homes from oil dependency to more energy-sustainable methods, be they biogas, heat pumps or solar panels.

The initial capital outlay to upgrade property is a barrier that, with a little thought, we can help to overcome. I appreciate that the Minister is with us. A lot of what I am saying is about the economy, but that shows that we need the cross-party Executive to work together, including the Minister for the Economy, the Minister for Communities, the Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister of Health. In this case, the Department for the Economy needs to look at incentives to make it easier for people to upgrade homes and properties and for the Housing Executive and housing associations to upgrade their properties. Even a cost-neutral facility, like interest-free loans that would enable people to spread the cost over several years and thus see savings quickly, would be of huge benefit. I would love to see schemes like that being put on the table and taken forward.

We need to invest now in offshore wind, onshore wind, solar, biogas and hydrogen in order to create the conditions for those technologies and industries to flourish. I stress that our green industry and all that development have been held back by an outdated and completely under-resourced planning process. Reforming that process needs to and absolutely must be one of the priorities of the Chamber to allow that development to happen and to move forward.

Another practical thing that we could do quickly is to fit smart electricity meters to our homes, which would allow consumers to save money and use energy away from peak times and when excess clean energy is available. We are the only part of these islands that does not have smart meters, but they could help the situation quickly and simply.

I have said before that every business should make a profit, but the other side of profit is taxation. That should redistribute wealth and support low and middle earners. Alliance —.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:00, 16 April 2024

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that a meaningful way to provide security and stability to households in fuel costs would be through a united effort by the Executive to lobby the UK Government for the introduction of a cap on the profit of energy companies, as was done successfully in France during recent spirals in home energy costs?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

I thank Justin for his comment. The answer is, simply, yes. I was saying that we need to redistribute wealth. We want to live in a region where everybody thrives, so we cannot sit back and allow hugely exaggerated profits from oil and gas companies to go to just a few people with high wealth while ordinary people on ordinary incomes are hurting. While that is a Westminster issue, I stress again that Alliance believes that taxation should be progressive and must redistribute wealth fairly and protect our most vulnerable.

Given all that I have said on energy, be in no doubt about this: Alliance will always stand up for people and for the planet. It will stand up for action against climate change as well as for actions to deliver net zero and a green new deal and to support new green industries. Importantly and centrally to those objectives, the Alliance party will, equally, stand up for our constituents and for equality and justice. Nobody should suffer fuel poverty in 2024.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

As we all know, household budgets are under enormous pressure. Childcare continues to be exorbitantly expensive and, in many areas, difficult if not impossible to access. Rampant inflation might have eased somewhat, but prices are still rising. Often, the choice for a household that is under severe financial pressure is between food and heat. That is why a fuel poverty strategy is essential, if the Executive parties are serious about tackling hardship. Fuel poverty has significant impacts on a household's quality of life, as well as on an individual's physical and mental health and well-being. Overall, fuel poverty is typically a direct consequence of three main factors: a comparatively low household or personal income; household energy costs; and the energy efficiency of a home. To be effective, a fuel poverty strategy needs to address those fundamental elements.

As mentioned earlier, the voluntary and community sector has played an incredible role. It has faced adversity too, because it was hammered by cuts. The picture often comes to my mind of a Tory in a lovely shire going along to get a photograph taken at his food bank, even though he, through his votes and policies, contributed to the need for that food bank. I was talking to some healthcare workers today who told me about nurses going to food banks. Working people going to food banks in 2024 is an absolute disgrace and brings shame on our society. I hope to God that the Tories get an awful hammering in the upcoming election. It is difficult to say whether those who follow will be any better, given the financial constraints. All I will say is that they could not be much worse.

Despite its importance, the existing fuel poverty strategy has not been updated since it was introduced by an SDLP Minister in 2011. The failure of the Executive and subsequent Ministers to update the fuel poverty strategy for over a decade, including five years during which Sinn Féin and the DUP blocked the formation of an Executive, has left thousands of families exposed and vulnerable to the exponential price increases that we have seen in recent years. We consistently report higher levels of fuel poverty than England, Scotland and Wales, but, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, we do not have a target for reducing fuel poverty. In fact, the level of fuel poverty has increased, according to the official figures, from 22% of households in 2016 to around 24% of households in 2020 and 2021. I am not sure about more recent years, but that figure could be even higher. In a survey last year, 45% of homes in Northern Ireland reported spending over 10% of their income on fuel and energy, which is the level of spending that is used to indicate fuel poverty.

The overarching principle that the Fuel Poverty Coalition recently published sets the standard by which a new fuel poverty strategy will be judged. Those who are most in need — our most vulnerable — should be supported first. The strategy must support low-income and vulnerable households equally across the North. The strategy must also recognise the urgency of the cost-of-living crisis and the impact that that is having on fuel-poor homes in the North. Many homes in Northern Ireland suffer from poor energy efficiency, inadequate insulation and outdated heating systems. Of course, we remain reliant on expensive home heating: about 68% of households depend on oil as their main heat source. That rises to around 82% in rural areas, such as that where I live, where the size and age of some of the buildings mean that they are generally less fuel-efficient in any case.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. He makes a valid point about the amount of home heating oil that we consume. In that regard, does he think that it is mighty strange that it is one of the only areas of energy consumption that is not regulated? Does he agree that the regulator's remit should be extended to include oil so that consumers can get the best value for the money that they spend?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Absolutely. When you look at the exorbitant, crucifying profits of the oil companies in particular in times of crisis, you ask yourself, "Who's codding whom here?". It is despicable.

Unlike electricity and gas, the home heating oil market, as the Member said, is unregulated and can be highly volatile. The cost per litre is currently around 66p, but, in the past 18 months, it has varied from 55p to over 100p. The likes of home improvement grants, home insulation grants and the support that is required to meet net zero targets and objectives, such as support for the likes of solar panels on people's homes, which is crucial, can contribute to net zero, better heating in the house and the better well-being, welfare and health of its occupants.

Introducing price protections for home heating oil customers and social tariffs for the most vulnerable should be key elements of a new fuel poverty strategy. Reducing that reliance on fossil fuels like oil for heating will also help to contribute to decarbonisation and those net zero objectives.

We have some of the highest energy prices on these islands. Along with other factors that I have highlighted, we see the result of that in the figures for fuel poverty. We need a new fuel poverty strategy. It must be a comprehensive and multifaceted approach that addresses the root causes of fuel poverty, promotes energy efficiency and supports vulnerable households. The strategy must have statutory targets —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

— for reducing fuel poverty by which the public can, and we can, judge its effectiveness.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

We have heard that around 45% of people here live in fuel poverty, with many choosing whether to heat or eat. I will hazard a wild guess and say that most MLAs, with their big salaries, are probably not in that category. If they were, we would see much more urgency in tackling fuel poverty. The cost-of-living crisis — energy prices in particular — is completely out of control. That is the case now, and it was the case before the Assembly collapsed, so there is absolutely no excuse for the ruling parties here to have sat on their hands for this long. The Executive parties have a case to answer for the stagnant wages, poor-quality homes and unchecked profiteering of energy companies that have compounded the hardships facing families across the North.

Some months ago, I saw the shocking statistic that energy companies in Britain were raking in £1 billion per week. That is price gouging — exploitation writ large — and it is no surprise to me that half of our population is experiencing fuel poverty when real weekly earnings in the North show the largest annual decrease on record: 4·5%. At the same time, energy prices continue to climb for so many, for everybody. Just last week, oil prices rose for a fourth consecutive week, and 67% of households here rely on oil to heat their home, yet, as has been said, we have absolutely no regulation of the companies that provide it. Successive Economy Ministers have been resisting since 2012 the Consumer Council's call to regulate home heating oil. I urge the current Economy Minister to urgently reconsider if he is serious about protecting people from fuel poverty. The current Communities Minister, in his previous role, has a lot to answer for for inaction on that and many other matters.

I broadly welcome the motion, but, when I hear the words "task force" emanating from the Assembly, it usually causes me concern or nervousness at the very least. People experiencing fuel poverty need this Government to take responsibility for addressing the issue. To be completely honest, what they do not need is another talking shop. The Economy Minister, the Communities Minister and their Executive colleagues could and should make specific commitments to address fuel poverty now before another cold winter. We need to see the regulation of oil companies to take money out of their hands and put it in the pockets of ordinary people. This is a devolved issue. A real energy price cap that challenges the profits of the energy firms can and should be implemented to cut bills. The Executive need to strengthen the hand of the Utility Regulator to properly check and investigate the spending and pricing of local energy providers. The Communities Minister should roll out an ambitious scheme to insulate homes and make them energy-efficient to address the obscene damp and mould that are destroying the houses and health of people in my constituency and beyond. Badly insulated homes face average bills of £124 per month, compared with £76 in well-insulated homes. While we welcome the fact that the Department for the Economy will soon launch a renewable electricity support scheme, it is absolutely unacceptable for the Government to leave the delivery of green energy to the private, for-profit sector.

Any strategy for eradicating fuel poverty needs to get real about the renationalisation of energy provision — public ownership. Ultimately, of course, that is within the gift of the British Government, but it is unacceptable for the Executive simply to leave them to their own devices. The Assembly and Executive need to stake out a position that aims to take energy — a basic human need — out of the hands of corporate profiteers. The Executive should join the majority of the public across these islands in calling for the provision of energy on the basis of need, not greed.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I have listened to the debate intently in the Chamber or up in my room when I was having to make calls. Everyone here knows of my interest in energy, so fuel poverty is a natural progression of that.

I agree that more can be done to prevent fuel poverty and to lift people out of it, but we are in danger of looking in the wrong places and of tackling the issue in the wrong ways. We could miss tricks that we should adopt but do not because we go down a certain path.

It interests me that the first line of the motion talks about the 290 souls lost every year in winter, yet from March 2022 to March 2023, there were over 1,000 excess deaths in this country, and no one wants to talk about those people. They died over the summer. In this rolling year of 52 weeks, 766 souls were lost. No one wants to join me in asking for an investigation of why people are dying needlessly. It is as if Members do not want to know or those people are not really dying. Why is that the case?

There is no doubt that we need a fuel poverty strategy, and one that is updated and fit for purpose. I look, however, at what the Opposition want to see in such a strategy and see that they list a menu in the motion. We can all call for a task force, but surely we have enough expertise in bodies that are already in situ to deal with some of the issues. If the Minister establishes a task force, all well and good, but it will probably produce a report with ingredients that we already know about.

I am very interested in having a cap on energy prices. Northern Ireland suffers from having one of the highest levels of electricity costs in the whole of Europe for businesses and manufacturers. We compete with Italy, so our costs are either the highest or second highest. Sometimes we beat Italy, while sometimes it beats us. Our domestic situation is not as bad, but that is to do with the way in which we have worked out the tariff. It is the opposite down South, by the way. There, the domestic customer pays more, while businesses are subsidised. It is a similar situation in Germany. The European Union has taken both states to court because of the way in which they configure prices.

My question is simply this: if we impose a cap on energy prices, who pays the difference? Energy prices do not come down that way. Rather, it just means that someone else pays. Who pays, if it is not the customer or the consumer?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15, 16 April 2024

I thank my Finance Committee colleague for giving way. Does he accept that there are multiple ways in which a price cap can be implemented? A particular model operates in Britain. In our manifesto, we suggest that, when energy company prices become too high, a cap be created by effectively imposing a kind of profits tax. There are, I am sure, other models in other parts of the world. Are those not exactly the kinds of options that a task force could examine and report back on to the Communities Minister or, indeed, the Economy Minister?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful for that clarification. There are a number of things in there, so let me pick the bones out of what the Member said. We have a fairly small number of people who generate electricity in this country and then distribute it. It is not the same in England, where there are countless such businesses. What has happened there is that, when a cap is set, it is like a speed limit, with everybody racing to get up to that speed. They do not go slower or lower. Rather, they all go up to that target. When, inevitably, companies have to push through the cap, some go to the wall. Companies in England can afford to do that, but we cannot afford to have more companies go to the wall in Northern Ireland. Our market is too limited.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Has the Member considered doing this? The energy companies' profits are out of control. British Gas's profits rose from £72 million to £751 million in a year. Tax the companies or introduce public ownership, and then prices can be reduced.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. That is a different thing. Wealth tax is different from a price cap. We should never, ever distort the two. If you do not distinguish between the two, you will only bring more pain to the taxpayer.

One of the big things that the Assembly can do is fund the Utility Regulator to do its job properly and appropriately to control the big beasts that generate and distribute energy here and the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI). We need a properly funded Utility Regulator. The Assembly can gift that funding.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Thank you very much.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you, Members. I call on the Minister for Communities to respond. The Minister will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the leader of the Opposition for bringing the motion to the House today and the Member who moved it. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue.

One of my first engagements as Communities Minister was to visit the home of someone who had seen significant improvements in the quality of that home. I saw the impact that that had on her and her family. I completely agree with the points made this afternoon about how intolerable it is that anybody should die in Northern Ireland due to a cold home. I am grateful that the proposer highlighted the fact that 290 people in Northern Ireland die each winter due to cold homes. That is a stark and horrifying statistic in many ways. I hope that that focuses our minds on the issue and on the need to address it.

As I said many times today and yesterday, addressing poverty, in all its forms, is a key priory for me. Fuel poverty is one of the many elements of poverty, and it needs to be taken seriously not just in my Department but right across the Executive. To that end, I am pleased to inform the House that I have tasked my officials to urgently take forward work on developing a new fuel poverty strategy, with a view to presenting that to the Executive before the end of this financial year.

Our most recent modelling suggests that, in 2022, more than a quarter — 27% — of households here were living in fuel poverty. As all Members recognised, that figure is unacceptably high. The impacts of fuel poverty can be felt right across our society. Living in a cold home presents hazards and health risks for people of all ages. Cold and damp homes are linked to worsening respiratory conditions, cardiovascular diseases, poor mental health, dementia and hypothermia. That is particularly concerning for vulnerable people or those with existing health conditions. For children, living in a fuel-poor home is associated with a significantly greater risk of health problems, and it can also impact upon their educational attainment.

As many Members highlighted, a household is considered to be in fuel poverty if it must spend more than 10% of its household income on fuel use. However, as has also been said this afternoon, that does not recognise the complexity of fuel poverty. Fuel poverty depends on the interaction and relationship between three key drivers: income, energy use and energy price. Work is well under way on the preparation of a new fuel poverty strategy that will set out a long-term, strategic approach to reducing fuel poverty. It will focus on addressing the root causes of fuel poverty rather than measures such as one-off cash payments to alleviate its short-term symptoms. We have to move beyond that and deal with it at the root.

The strategy will contain some key themes, including how government supports those living in or at risk of fuel poverty; improved collaboration to target the hard-to-reach and make the best use of our resources; improve health outcomes; and provide consumer protection through the energy transition. It is a useful opportunity to consider a cross-government approach to defining whom we target for support and to agree common principles that can be applied for all kinds of home energy support to ensure that, collectively, we reach the right people.

We want to better understand the problem of fuel poverty. That means not only its definition, which, as we all know, differs across each part of the UK and Ireland, but its impacts. I want to improve our measurement of fuel poverty so that we can be more responsive to those who need help.

My Department continues to deliver the affordable warmth scheme for owner-occupiers and those in the private rented sector most at risk of fuel poverty. That application-based scheme provides low-income households with a range of heating and insulation measures to improve the thermal efficiency of their home. I am also in the early stages of developing a new fuel poverty intervention to replace the affordable warmth scheme when it comes to an end in March 2026. That fuel poverty intervention will ensure that people who are living in owner-occupied or privately rented homes and experiencing fuel poverty will receive vital energy efficiency work. My ambition is for it to be a more comprehensive and ambitious scheme that supports the principles of the new fuel poverty strategy and helps to decarbonise homes. To that end, my officials are exploring the option of low-carbon heating solutions and will consider the eligibility criteria and income thresholds in the development of the new scheme.

A key principle of the fuel poverty strategy will be long-term sustainable support that tackles the root causes of fuel poverty. However, I recognise that, at times, people experience financial crises and need short-term financial support. For those in need of immediate support, additional financial support is available through the discretionary support service. That is unique to Northern Ireland and is there to provide support to people in financial need and those who require short-term assistance in crisis or emergency situations. In addition, the winter fuel payment is a tax-free and non-means-tested benefit introduced specifically to help older people with their winter fuel bills, and is payable to customers who meet the eligibility criteria, regardless of whether they are receiving a social security benefit.

My Department's Make the Call service continues to support individuals and families who, otherwise, may miss out on the benefits that they are entitled to. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive offers support with energy efficiency advice that is targeted actively at vulnerable households and those who will benefit most from energy efficiency-related advice. As the one-stop shop for energy advice across Northern Ireland, it offers information to help with energy efficiency, grants, signposting, renewable energy and energy saving and advice on how to switch energy suppliers, on debt, on fuel poverty and on how to benefit from oil-buying savings across Northern Ireland.

We will all be aware of the transformation required across government by the targets in the Climate Change Act to transition to net zero by 2050. As Communities Minister, I am leading the residential element of the building sector and will drive a step change in what we are doing to reduce carbon emissions in the sector. Fuel combustion in households makes up 95% of emissions from the residential sector. Therefore, a key challenge will be switching to non-fossil-fuel-based systems, mainly air and ground source heat pumps. However, let me make it clear: we need to do that in a way that is not too expensive and does not increase fuel poverty.

We need to significantly increase the energy efficiency of homes across all tenures — social, private rented and owner-occupied — but we need to do that carefully to avoid cold bridging, condensation, damp and mould. Importantly, we need to enhance the capacity and skills in our construction sector in order to deliver that. Making homes more energy efficient and easier to heat, with a particular focus on those who are more at risk, will have a positive impact on both mental and physical health, and will deliver benefits for public health and reduce inequality across our community.

I want to ensure that the transformational change is a just transition as required by the Climate Change Act, but, again, it is really important that the most vulnerable are protected and that no one is left behind. That is critical to my work as Minister. Alongside the challenges of decarbonisation, we must ensure that the fuel poor are not excluded and that they benefit from real opportunities to create warmer and healthier homes.

During the debate, there have been calls 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. As I have said, fuel poverty is not a simple issue and the solutions are neither simple nor solely within my remit. I am pleased that that was acknowledged by a number of Members in their contributions. Those actions demonstrate that the responsibility lies with the Economy Minister. That is not to pass responsibility on to somebody else but to highlight the genuinely collaborative approach that we need as an Executive to develop long-term sustainable solutions to fuel poverty. My officials have been working collaboratively with those who understand the issues and can help to address them. Through a fuel poverty reference panel, we have been working closely with academics, colleagues across government and the community and voluntary sector to inform and advise on the new fuel poverty strategy. That collaboration will be key to its successful implementation.

I have also established a cross-departmental project board to oversee the strategy development. It is for that reason that I believe a fuel poverty task force is not necessary; in fact, it would be a step backwards as we continue to develop the strategy. My officials are carrying out pre-consultation stakeholder engagement from now until June for the strategy and the new affordable warmth scheme. Those engagement events will continue to take place across Northern Ireland, and I encourage all who are interested to get involved. Many new energy and residential policies are being brought forward across government, and I want to take a collaborative approach with my ministerial colleagues to work towards meeting net zero while protecting the fuel-poor.

I will not oppose the motion. There are many things in it that are good and useful for us to be aware of. We should highlight how serious the issue is. I recognise that the fuel poverty strategy is out of date. I have been clear about what we are doing and how we will bring forward a new strategy. I have made comments about the fuel poverty task force, and there will certainly be lots of debate on some of the other issues that Members have listed in the motion.

I want to be clear that I recognise how important fuel poverty is in tackling the wider issue of poverty and that, as a Department and an Executive, we are committed to making real and tangible progress in this area. That will require substantial cross-departmental work and collaboration, but I want to be clear that that is something that I am up for. We do not have an easy task ahead of us: it will require a lot of work and the right resources being in place. Although there are significant challenges that come with this, there are substantial opportunities as well for the people whom we serve and represent.

This is about people, their lives and their well-being. A warm home is a happy and healthy home, so we must ensure that everyone can afford to heat and power their home to an adequate degree at a reasonable cost. I look forward to playing my part in that, and I hope that I will have the support of other Members here in doing so.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 3:30, 16 April 2024

Thank you, Minister, for that response. I call Sinéad McLaughlin to conclude and wind on the debate. You have up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful to the Members who have contributed to this important debate. Many statistics are associated with fuel poverty, and we have heard several of them this afternoon. However, the main statistic is one that should focus our minds, and Daniel McCrossan outlined it when he proposed the motion: 290 people die here every year because of fuel poverty. That is an absolute scandal in this day and age, and it is happening on our watch. It is fuelled by the policies of our Government and the dysfunction of our politics. As other Members said, due to the repeated and consistent failures of this place, whether in policy and strategy or because of the refusal of some parties to work the common ground and operate the institutions, we have allowed individuals to live in homes that are simply not for purpose and have pushed more and more people into fuel poverty, with devastating consequences for their health, well-being and livelihood. Of course, in recent years, more people have struggled than ever before thanks to the impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. Faced with those challenges, what was the response of the biggest parties in the Chamber? They walked away from the table and took turns to bring this place down. Those actions did nothing for the thousands of people here who struggle with the choice between heating and eating.

We all know of families who, without support from government, have chosen to go without food in order to make sure that the heating can be turned on. Sian Mulholland told us about the impact of the fuel poverty that some of her constituents experience. We have all seen how even the government support schemes that exist do not reach everyone who needs them. As has been said throughout the debate, fuel poverty literally costs lives, with people in damp, cold homes paying the price of the failure to address the issue. It does not affect everyone equally. In Derry City and Strabane, we have the highest level of individuals in relative poverty, after housing costs, at between 23% and 24%. That is double the lowest level in Northern Ireland. That kind of regional inequality is unacceptable. It means that whether you will experience fuel poverty is very much a postcode lottery.

In 2024, it should not be the case that anyone struggles to heat their home or keep a roof over their head or gets sick from damp and mouldy conditions. I do not believe that that is a controversial statement. The question now is this: what will the Executive do about it? In the past, this place delivered the Warmer, Healthier Homes fuel poverty strategy, but that is over a decade old and is no longer fit for purpose. The truth is that, in recent years, progress towards meaningful change has been woeful. People who are in desperate need struggle with fuel poverty. There has been little change in practice, and the fuel poverty strategy for Northern Ireland has not been updated since 2011. That failure has exposed thousands of families to exponential shocks in recent years and has had a devastating impact.

Several Members referred to the number of households living in fuel poverty, citing the fact that, in 2016, it was estimated that 22% of households were in fuel poverty. Recent data from the Fuel Poverty Coalition suggests that that has risen to 45%. We know that the challenges of fuel poverty are especially acute for our rural communities, as Colm Gildernew highlighted. Around 82% of people in such communities are heavily reliant on home heating oil, which is totally unregulated. In this mandate, we must finally see the delivery of the long-overdue fuel poverty strategy, which must set clear, ambitious targets to eradicate fuel poverty in the next Programme for Government.

Patsy McGlone stated that the strategy must establish much-needed support for working families, particularly those who have not had the opportunity to avail themselves of support streams. The strategy must provide the framework for transformational change, particularly when it comes to retrofitting homes. Kellie Armstrong made that point very well. At the time of the 2019 Housing Executive stock survey, 63% of homes had cavity wall insulation that was not compliant with the industry standard. People living in those homes simply do not have a chance when it comes to ensuring that their home can stay warm, and they are much more likely to get sick, particularly if they are elderly or have pre-existing health conditions. We know that cold homes exacerbate respiratory illness and mental health issues, which, in turn, places yet more demands on our National Health Service.

John Stewart talked about the quality of housing. I have lost count of the people who have come into my constituency surgeries whose health issues can be traced back to their housing situation. I thank John Stewart, who mentioned Andy Allen's work in calling for the establishment of a fuel poverty task force. It is time for the Government to get serious about the matter and to undertake a large-scale retrofit programme. Such a scheme may be expensive, but it is, no doubt, possible, and it will pay off tenfold in the long run. After all, if heat is lost through our homes, it does not matter how many support schemes are created, because we will never solve the problem. That strategy can also help us meet our climate goals through reducing carbon emissions and their associated environmental impacts, all while delivering a new generation of energy-efficient homes, bringing down costs for families and helping us to reach net zero. We need a programme of retrofitting, and we need to address the challenges that people face.

David Honeyford highlighted the need for innovative thinking, and a reform programme will require fundamental change in our planning system. For that, we should be prepared to look elsewhere. In the South, planning policy and regulation are facilitating the homes of the future. We are building homes for the past, and we are doing that now. Everyone in the Chamber knows that planning policy here is a complete handbrake on sustainable development and on creating the housing stock that we all want to see for the future. Only by introducing such an approach can we future-proof the strategy so that it stands up to scrutiny over time. That means that this is not a job for just the Minister for Communities, as he rightly said. The Minister for Infrastructure also has a role, and there is a wider impact on the rest of the Executive. Indeed, the next fuel poverty strategy must encourage and facilitate collaboration across Departments, public health agencies and other stakeholders. No one can shirk responsibility on this. In short, the Assembly is only up and running, but we are already seeing examples of the silo mentality that characterised the previous mandate.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I have to take exception to that point, because I have been in the Chamber a number of times over the last couple of days and given examples of how we have worked collaboratively on the defective premises legislation, for example. There has been very good working together between Departments already on this, which is a priority. The Member has outlined a lot of things that, she thinks, I should do, but I have just highlighted in my speech exactly what I will do. I do not think that there have been any examples, since the Executive have been up and running, of how we have not been working together; in fact, the collaboration has been very good, and it will make a difference.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you for that. Really? There are Ministers who come in here and kick the ball wherever it will land, so there is still a silo mentality.

That effort must address the root causes of fuel poverty while supporting the most vulnerable in our community. We have previously called on the Department to take steps, including establishing a fuel poverty task force. We heard Brian Kingston express misgivings about such a task force, but there is nothing to fear from gathering experts and engaging in a co-design process. We have also previously called on the Minister to extend the winter fuel payment to universal credit recipients and to implement a warm home discount scheme so that families here can enjoy the same benefits as families in England. Those calls fell on deaf ears with the Minister's predecessors, and I hope that Minister Lyons is willing to take up that challenge.

I thank the Minister for responding to the motion. We welcome your commitment to prioritising poverty, but we need urgency, pace and action. We welcome the new fuel poverty interventions that are being developed. They cannot come soon enough, as you will have heard across the Chamber today.

Minister, you also spoke about the Northern Ireland Housing Executive providing energy efficiency advice, yet it has some of the most inefficient housing stock on this island. In relation to a task force, Minister, surely you can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Today, the call from the official Opposition is for the Executive to make the right choice when it comes to fuel poverty. I urge all parties to play their part in eradicating fuel poverty once and for all by committing to update the fuel poverty strategy before the end of the year. By agreeing the motion, the Assembly can take action on the issue once and for all by placing a cap on energy prices, by introducing system price protections for home heating oil customers and —

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

— by bringing forward social tariffs to protect our most vulnerable.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Above all, let us make sure that we do not have another 290 people dying as a result of fuel poverty.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Time is up. Thank you for concluding the debate.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

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.