An emergency fuel payment scheme has been overwhelmed, the Stormont Communities Minister has said.
The Stormont Executive agreed the £55 million scheme which sees a one-off payment of £200 is to be made automatically to around 280,000 eligible people in Northern Ireland in receipt of specified benefits.
A smaller complementary £2 million fund has also been designed for those also facing pressures which is being operated by the Bryson Charitable Group.
Deirdre Hargey told the Assembly that as of January 14, 2,358 applications had been received for the second scheme.
Of those, 1,323 have been validated and eligible, and 1,098 have received a payment.
She said Bryson expect to process around 300-400 applications a day, subject to review.
Earlier Shane Logan, chief executive of Bryson Charitable Group, said the number of people applying exceeded the number it can help.
During Community Minister questions, Ms Hargey described the demand as “unprecedented”.
“A scheme that is targeting 20,000 people with a demand of over 280,000 trying to contact the scheme will never be fit for purpose … it was never intended to do that,” she told MLAs.
“That’s why the larger fuel support scheme is to try and get to as many households as possible.
“I did try to extend that scheme, for example to look at issues of tax credits but because that’s a reserved matter, it has to be HMRC who advised when we requested that make the payment said they couldn’t make the payment, that they would need a change in primary legislation and that would be done outside this financial year where the money needs to be spent.”
DUP MLA Maurice Bradley described frustrations by people trying to apply for the scheme.
He urged that a multi-agency taskforce to deal with the situation.
Ms Hargey said developing a taskforce won’t deal with the immediate problem.
She described facing a global fuel crisis, and while programmes will mitigate, but “won’t overcome the issues that we’re facing”.
“The Bryson scheme was intended to target 20,000 individuals and it was always to be additional to the £55 million scheme which will target 280,000 individuals over the next period,” she told MLAs.
“We also paid out to just under 300,000 pensioners the Winter Fuel Payment in November and December.
“And we have other supports, through discretionary support, for example in terms of those who find themselves in crisis, but we also need larger government responses to this and I know that the Finance Minister had written to the British Government on the removal of VAT in terms of energy bills, and I have been pushing that we again push the British Government in terms of a response around that.”