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Calls for Stormont’s Communities Department to set up support scheme for those impacted by rising energy costs

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Energy prices in Northern Ireland continue to soar.

Energy prices in Northern Ireland continue to soar.

Energy prices in Northern Ireland continue to soar.

There have been calls for Stormont’s Department for Communities to set up a support scheme to help those most vulnerable impacted by rising energy costs.

Electricity and gas prices across the board have been increasing significantly in recent months as we come into winter.

As a result of global supply issues and other factors, annual energy bills for thousands of households are set to rise by as much as 50%.

Last month, new research also revealed that rising heating and electricity costs are swallowing up a larger proportion of incomes in Northern Ireland than in any other UK region. The research found that these cost account for 6.5% of our weekly budgets - the highest proportion of 12 UK regions.

The Northern Ireland Consumer Council has also warned that households here will be spending an extra £1,000 a year on heat, electricity and petrol/diesel by the end of the year.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey was asked this week for an update on plans to provide support packages for consumers facing fuel poverty as a result of energy price increases.

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Mr Hargey said her department currently provides support through its Affordable Warmth Scheme, Cold Weather Payments, Discretionary Support and the Winter Fuel Payment.

"This is a global crisis and undoubtedly will have a major impact, including on those who are already struggling financially," the minister added.

"The Department continues to engage with the Utility Regulator and the Consumer Council and given the scale of this crisis will work with the Executive colleagues to try and mitigate the impacts."

Ulster Unionist communities spokesperson Andy Allen said that, right across Northern Ireland, many individuals and families are being adversely impacted by the soaring cost of living.

"In recent weeks we have seen significant increases, in some cases almost 50%, in the cost of energy. This comes against the backdrop of rising costs in every area of daily life, resulting in many experiencing a cost of living crisis," he said.

"At beginning of November, the Minister confirmed that the Northern Ireland Executive would receive £13.7M from the UK vulnerable households scheme and that she would be bidding for the entirety of this funding.

"As we now approach the start of December the Minister and her Department have not produced any plans as to what support they intend to bring forward to assist those adversely impacted by this cost of living crisis.

"I would therefore call on the Minister to urgently bring forward short-term proposals to provide immediate assistance and also renew my call on her to establish a cross-departmental fuel poverty task force, supported by sector experts, to develop medium and long term solutions."

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong, deputy chair of Stormont's Communities Committee, said she has raised a number of questions to the Communities Minister, asking if the winter fuel payment could be reviewed in order to increase the level of support coming from the Executive to help people deal with the increased costs of living.

"I have also asked if the Minister will take forward a bid from Advice NI and National Energy Action to provide energy vouchers for people without the means to heat their homes," she said

"Ultimately, the Departments for Communities and Economy need to give proper support to households, including helping them undertake energy efficiency measures and to install low carbon heating systems, to help us as a society move away from fossil fuels as the basis of our energy."

There was recently a call from Finance Minister Conor Murphy to his Executive colleagues to surrender money they can’t spend in order to establish an energy payment scheme for households hear in light of increases in domestic electricity and gas bills. It emerged this week that the Department for the Economy alone has surrendered £41m in unspent funds. The details of the scheme are currently unclear.


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