The powers of Northern Ireland's Utility Regulator will be reviewed as part of Stormont's Energy Strategy.
Due to rising energy costs, the work of the Utility Regulator has come under the spotlight recently.
Our Utility Regulator is responsible for regulating the electricity, gas, water and sewerage industries in Northern Ireland, and also promoting the interests of consumers.
In recent months there have been several price hikes from electricity and gas companies, with the latest today, when Click Energy announced its prices will rise by 11%.
Last month, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that millions of households across the UK will receive financial support to help with rising energy bills. This will include a one-off £650 payment to low-income households or those on social security, as well as a £400 energy bill discount in October.
The Treasury has insisted the support will still be provided to NI households, despite the lack of an Executive.
In response to an Assembly question tabled by UUP MLA Andy Allen, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said the regulatory powers of the Utility Regulator will be reviewed as part of the work to deliver the Executive’s energy strategy.
The energy strategy contains 22 actions for this year, with around a third of these relating to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. In the long-term, the strategy hopes to reduce energy-related emissions by 56% by 2030.
It also includes plans around the creation of a 'one-stop shop for consumers', where they can get advice on support on how to become more energy efficient and reduce emissions.
Mr Allen said the cost-of-living crisis gripping the UK requires a “robust” response from every level of government.
“This is particularly impacted by the lack of a functioning devolved administration to develop and implement the necessary short, medium, and longer-term intervention and support. One aspect of that is equipping the utility regulator with the best tools and powers to regulate the entire sector,” he said.
“At this juncture energy companies also need to come forward and provide support, whether that be through charitable donation to deliver support, or otherwise.
“We also urgently need that ‘one-stop shop’ as referenced in the energy strategy to ensure the support and intervention being developed is robust and meaningful. Across Northern Ireland we have a wealth of knowledge and experience within government and the third and private sectors why would we not utilise it?
“As projections indicate that prices are unlikely to fall anywhere near 2021 levels for many years, all ministers should be actively considering every possible action to ease pressure on households and businesses.”
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll previously questioned the purpose of the Utility Regulator as energy prices have continued to rise across the board with no signs of abating.
“The Utility Regulator should have the power to prevent these extortionate rises from taking place. The Utility Regulator has a remit and responsibility to protect consumers and they should be calling for intervention and public ownership,” he said.
“Other countries have seen bills frozen and the scale of profits challenged — there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the same case here.”
In response to the criticism, a spokesperson for the Utility Regulator said the main reason for rising bills is increases in international wholesale energy costs. This makes up over half of consumers’ bills.
“Our job is to ensure that the prices people pay reflect the costs of regulated suppliers, and to act for Northern Ireland consumers to make sure that, when wholesale costs fall, this will be reflected in their bills as soon as possible,” the spokesperson added.