More than 289,000 winter fuel payments have already been issued this winter to families struggling to heat their homes in Northern Ireland, Stormont’s Communities Minister has said.
Deirdre Hargey also told MLAs that she is seeking financial assistance to bring forward an energy payment support scheme to help combat the effects of soaring home heating costs.
During ministerial question time in the Assembly, Ms Hargey was told that a charity had identified a small town where 40 households are unable to heat their home or feed their families.
Ms Hargey said: “The global fuel crisis is undoubtedly having a major impact on people, particularly those who are already struggling financially.
“The winter fuel payment is a payment of between £100 and £300 to help with heating costs. This year’s payments have already started and will continue through to January.
“To date more than 289,762 payments have already been issued here with a total value of £51.6 million.”
The minister continued: “My officials have also been engaging with the Utilities Regulator, the Consumer Council, and with other stakeholders to scope out the options which are available to provide support to people who may struggle to heat their home or to pay their energy bills over the coming months.
“This includes an energy payment support scheme, which will provide a one-off payment to help individuals in receipt of specified benefits with energy costs this winter.
“Such a scheme will require the support of my Executive colleagues and to ensure there is sufficient funding to secure an appropriate level of support.
“It will also require new legislation as well as the support of other key stakeholders for the scheme to be delivered.
“I have written to the Minister for Finance (Conor Murphy) to request that the £13.8 million of the Barnett consequential funding supporting households over the winter is allocated to my department to progress an energy payment support scheme and in order to provide the necessary support for families who will need it over the winter period.
“An even greater amount will be required and I welcome the finance minister’s request to other Executive colleagues in seeking additional funding to support this scheme going forward.”
Ulster Unionist MLA, Rosemary Barton, asked the minister if she had considered raising the level of the winter fuel payment.
Mr Hargey responded: “The winter fuel payment rates were last reviewed by the Department for Work and Pensions back in 2010/11.
“Any increase would require a change in legislation and for the Executive to approve such a move.”
SDLP MLA, Patsy McGlone, said: “I was contacted last night about a small town in Mid Ulster where (the anti-poverty group) St Vincent de Paul has identified 40 families who can’t heat their homes and can’t feed their families.
“I welcome the principal of the energy payment support scheme.”
He then asked the minister how much the payments under the scheme would be.
She said: “I can’t give the details yet because it has to go to the Executive for approval and the amounts paid will be dependent on the budget that we can secure.
“The Covid payment scheme last year needed £45 million to go to over 220,000 households; so, if you are looking a payment of £200 on average, that is the type of money.
“The Barnett consequential isn’t even £14 million and that is why the finance minister has asked other departments to come forward with funding.
“I am hopeful over the next week or two we will have an agreement in terms of money.”