Stephen Farry stated: “At long last, there is light at the end of the tunnel on the long-running saga of the winter fuel payments of £150 that have promised by the Northern Ireland Executive since December.
“The indications are now that these payments will be paid in April. Households who were in receipt of either income support or pension credit at the qualifying point in late December 2008 should receive their payments automatically through their usual benefit payment system.
“This may provide some assistance with fuel bills, but the irony of winter fuel assistance arriving in the spring time will not be lost on many. The Executive are using the language of a ‘fuel assistance scheme’, but the assumption has to be that this money is to be used to help people through the winter. Not everyone will have had the cashflow or confidence to spend the extra money themselves in anticipation of money coming from the government later.
“The UK Government designed their scheme for helping people in Great Britain last September. Our Department of Social Development was developing its own scheme. However, it was only in December, with the onset of the winter, that a commitment was made to introduce payments. Then legislation had to be introduced. The scheme has now been increased from 100,000 households to 150,000 households, but only the £15m for the first 100,000 has so far been allocated by the finance minister, with another £7.5m yet to be found. I trust that it will, but the overall response from the Executive has been less than efficient and effective.
“In the absence of a better programme, cash assistance was the best thing and the right thing for the Executive to do this year. Ultimately, the question has to be asked whether resources should be invested in improving energy efficiency in homes, giving people assistance with their fuel costs not just for one year but for many years to come.”