Judith Cochrane MLA, speaking in the Assembly debate on the report, said: “Northern Ireland has the highest rate of fuel poverty in Northern Europe, therefore, DSD must take the lead and work in collaboration with other departments to tackle fuel poverty here once and for all.
“Fuel poverty has been on the increase in NI since 2006, with 61 % of older people and 83% of lone older people living in fuel poverty here. The sub-zero temperatures in 2010 brought the issue to the forefront and we saw how the health of our most vulnerable is at risk when many had to choose between heating and eating.
“With Welfare Reform on the way, we must seriously consider the changes that are likely to happen to household incomes that could push more people into fuel poverty as a result.
“I welcome the point in the report about whether the Winter Fuel payment should be paid as a credit to a household’s electricity, gas or oil supplier, as opposed to being paid as a cash sum. I would certainly recommend that this be considered, as pressure can often be felt particularly by older people around Christmas time, and they may instead use the payment for gifts when they really need to take care of themselves and keep their house warm.
“The Report recognises that the eradication of fuel poverty is unlikely to be achieved without the adoption of a long-term strategy. Given the likelihood that fuel prices will continue to rise, we must also seek to protect those with the lowest incomes by promoting benefit checks, encouraging energy efficiency within the home and helping people to budget for their fuel payments.
“It is clear that many households using oil have no option but to buy their oil in small amounts resulting in them paying substantially more per litre than those who can afford to fill their tank in one go.
“Just recently I went to see Carillion’s pilot Pay as you go Oil scheme in action and I would encourage the Minister to establish a procurement process for a contract to deliver a ‘Pay As you Go’ oil scheme in order to assist those who simply cannot afford to pay large lump sums for oil each time.
“Of the 500,000 homes using oil, around 400,000 of these have old, inefficient boilers. Whilst I am glad to see that money has been awarded to the Housing Executive to improve energy efficiency with the boiler replacement scheme, I am disappointed that it would appear that this money has been taken from that which was earmarked for the Green New Deal.
“This decision also locks us in to our reliance on fossil fuels which needs to be addressed. With global energy prices continuing to rise, we need to enable people to use less energy through energy efficiency measures as well as moving to more sustainable energy sources such as those proposed in the Green New Deal.”