Skip to main content

Energy Bills Support Scheme: Northern Ireland

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the energy bill support scheme payment for Northern Ireland.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Northern Ireland energy bills support scheme will provide £400 to households in Northern Ireland this winter. In addition, it has been decided that the alternative fuel payment of £200 will, unlike in Great Britain, be paid to every household in Northern Ireland because of the high preponderance of the use of heating oil in particular. On top of that, support is already being provided to households in Northern Ireland through the energy price guarantee, which brings an automatic reduction in bills.

Energy is devolved, so this scheme should have been administered by the Executive in Northern Ireland. In Great Britain, my Department has been working since February to deal with this very complex and challenging task. We do not live in a society with a centralised database, so standing up the support has proved extremely challenging. It was not until August that the Executive asked the Government and therefore my Department to take on responsibility for it, which is one reason why we have been behind.

There is also a different system and a different regulator. As energy is a devolved matter, the Department was not used to working with the system on a day-to-day basis. Since then, we have identified that we needed powers that we lacked in the Northern Ireland context and we were able to seek those powers through emergency legislation—the Energy Prices Act 2022. We then sought to find the right route to get through to consumers in Northern Ireland.

We found that working through suppliers, because of their established relationships, is the best way—if not the only way—realistically and in a reasonable timeframe to reach consumers in Northern Ireland. By using those systems, we hope to expedite delivery, but there is a different set of suppliers from Great Britain and they have their own processes that need to be adapted to deliver the support. Detailed work is under way to establish how suppliers can use their systems to pass funds to consumers in a way that will meet consumer needs and ensure that public money is properly protected. That is where the biggest issue has come about.

I would like to see the AFP and the EBSS added together so that a £600 payment can go to households in Northern Ireland, and I would like it to be available for them to use this winter to meet their heating oil bills and the cost of living crisis. I do not want them to have stranded electricity credit that they may not use up until the following winter. That has been the crux of the challenge when dealing with suppliers and that is what we are working on to make sure—

I sincerely thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which I have asked on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, for whom the cost of living crisis is biting as much as in other parts of our United Kingdom. Across GB, households have received their energy bills support payment, but my constituents, and people across Northern Ireland, have not. That £400 has been dangled in front of them but remains beyond their grasp. The promise of an additional £200 in recognition of our dependence on heating oil also remains unpaid.

The previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), assured the people of Northern Ireland that the payment would be issued in November. Today, November draws to a close, but there has been no payment. Hard-pressed families budgeting for the additional pressures of Christmas factored the Government’s promise into their budgeting. What has the Minister to say to them?

As temperatures have plummeted over recent days, people in Northern Ireland are waking up to frost on their cars outside, but inside their homes, some people can even see their breath because they are unable to turn their heating on. They need this payment, yet what we get from the Government is delay, doubt and differing stories as to the type of scheme as each day passes. It is not good enough. We need a firm commitment from the Government that the payment will be issued before Christmas. We know it can be done. We saw through covid that where there is a will, the Government can overcome technicalities quickly to deliver support.

The UK Government have been centrally delivering the scheme for England, Scotland and Wales. They say that the budget is there to issue it for Northern Ireland, and the energy companies say that they are ready to administer it, so can the Minister clarify the exact form that the payment will take and when it will come? Furthermore, will changing the model by which the scheme is delivered, as indicated yesterday, create a further delay? I implore the Minister: let there be no more delay. He should make the payment and honour the commitments given to the people of Northern Ireland.

As I said, energy is devolved. I understand why the hon. Lady’s party is not part of the Executive, but that has consequences. It meant that we did not start until August. We should not be doing this; the Executive in Northern Ireland should be doing it—that is the truth.

I met chief executive officers of the energy suppliers last week. Whatever the hon. Lady may have heard, they are not ready. Their systems do not allow for the dispensing and cashing out. I hope that she agrees about not wanting to see people unable to access stranded credit in their electricity account. I have insisted that we find a way to make sure that people can cash that out and use it to meet their heating oil bills this winter.

We had a roundtable on Monday with my officials and those suppliers, and another yesterday. I am receiving daily updates and I am determined to find a way to ensure that we can allow cashing out this winter. In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, however, given the late handing over from the Executive to us and the situation with suppliers, I do not see that we will be able to stand that up before Christmas. We are aiming to stand it up in January, if we possibly can. That is my aspiration and my aim, and that is what I am seeking to achieve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on being granted this urgent question. I will put on record some statistics from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council to give some context to what we are talking about. Some 44% of households in Northern Ireland have no savings compared with the UK average of 16%. Households in Northern Ireland are the most vulnerable in our country to the cost of living crisis, with a weekly discretionary spend of £93 compared with the UK average of £204.

Even with the Government’s measures, the University of York estimates that more than 10 million families will be in fuel poverty. Under the new Government’s plans, bills will rise by £900 to £3,000 on average from April. That would mean that 18 million households were in fuel poverty across the UK, with Northern Ireland hit among the hardest. To make matters worse, two thirds of households in Northern Ireland use heating oil, so are not supported by the energy price guarantee.

Providing support for households in Northern Ireland should have been a priority as they will be hit harder by the rise in energy bills. Instead, the Government seem to have forgotten them. The energy market is complicated but the Government have been aware of these issues for six months. In May, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), wrote in the Belfast News Letter to promise that the Government were

“urgently working to ensure that the people of NI receive the equivalent of this”—

energy bill support—

“as soon as possible.”

There has been little sign, however, that the Government have been working on the issue at all since then.

A taskforce was set up in August, but has met only twice. The former Prime Minister, during her very short tenure, told the people in Northern Ireland that payment would be delivered in November—today is 30 November. It is not good enough to let the issue drift. The Northern Ireland utility regulator said in August that he believed there was a simple mechanism to get the money out and he had been left frustrated that the Government had not taken it forward. Can the Minister explain why the option put forward by the Northern Ireland utility regulator has not been taken forward? How much longer will people in Northern Ireland have to wait for this support?

We are acutely aware of the situation facing households in Northern Ireland. Of course, what they most need is good government in Northern Ireland for and by the people of Northern Ireland. It is the failure to have that Executive in this devolved area of responsibility that is at the heart of the issue. Any statements in May were about getting the Executive to do their job and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Looking forward, the people of Northern Ireland need a period of good government and future prosperity. The regulator does not have the means and certainly has not offered to facilitate the payment to consumers.

I assure the House that whatever people may have heard from suppliers, when I met CEOs last week, they told me that they needed more time and that they did not have the systems to do cashing out. I told them that that was not acceptable, which is why I am holding them to account on a daily basis and making sure that we push so that we can get this support out as early in the new year as possible. Northern Ireland families deserve better than what they have now.

I know the Minister will try to pass the blame on to the non-operation of the Executive, but he has known for some time that while electricity transmission may be a devolved issue, this is a national policy issue that can be dealt with nationally.

Let us look at the excuses the Minister has made today. He said we do not have the data. The data was available and has been available, and he knows it has been available, from the four electricity companies for some time. He said he does not have the powers. He has had the powers for some time: the legislation has gone through this House. He said there are different suppliers in Northern Ireland. There are only four suppliers in Northern Ireland, as opposed to a multiplicity of suppliers in the rest of the UK. With a complicated system in Great Britain, the powers that are available, the assurances from the regulator and the assurances from the electricity companies, how come he still cannot get the money out?

I am surprised the right hon. Gentleman is not aware that there are more than four energy suppliers in Northern Ireland, so the situation is not exactly as he gives it. I have fully explained exactly what we are doing. As I say, I am updated on a daily basis to make sure that we have a system that will allow families to get hold of the money. It is hardly passing blame to suggest that a devolved area of responsibility should be fulfilled in the area to which such devolution has occurred.

This really is an unsightly spectacle. The UK Government are blaming the people of Northern Ireland for the political choices they have made and the collapse of devolution, rather than taking responsibility for this. The Minister is really struggling with this brief and with getting this money out to families, and understanding the difference with Northern Ireland and having to deal with the consequences is going to happen across all sectors of the UK Government. What are they doing to support Ministers across all briefs to understand the different situation in Northern Ireland, so that they can support the people of Northern Ireland across all Departments?

In so far as I understood the hon. Lady’s question, this is complicated and we are working flat out—my officials are working flat out, and I would like to thank them for their support—to overcome this and make sure that families get the support they deserve this winter.

Despite this scheme having been announced in May, we will hit December tomorrow without households being supported. As far back as the spring, my party was proposing a taskforce to address a cost of living crisis that was clear to anybody actually focused on the needs of households in Northern Ireland. We have put forward solutions including a home heating oil subsidy and one based on the voucher scheme rolled out last year. We have always known that people cannot eat a flag, and it is very clear that they cannot heat their home with one either. Is not the hard truth that this is a casualty of ransom politics, and that hard-pressed families—whether Unionist, nationalist, or neither—are paying the price of the decisions of one party, the DUP? Will the UK Government please now step in and ensure that there is not a collective punishment for people the vast majority of whom want to see good government, to move forward and to be able to look after their family this Christmas?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and we are doing everything we can to support consumers and households in Northern Ireland—for instance, with the energy price guarantee. In fact, rather than the £2,500 average annualised bill this winter in GB, it comes in at about £2,200 in Northern Ireland, and we have sought every step of the way to make sure that we recognise the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. [Official Report, 5 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 2MC.] As I say, it is my aspiration to see, if at all possible, that the alternative fuel payment and the EBSS payment can be made, so £600 should reach families in Northern Ireland before the close of winter—in fact, they should receive it in total ahead of those in GB.

Does the Minister accept that, while he is now asking the companies to provide a cash-out facility, they offered Government a process that would allow cash-out in June and July of this year? The Government emphatically said, “No. That is not occurring in GB, and it is not to occur in Northern Ireland”. All the companies were ready to distribute and disburse this money in November, alongside the Government’s plan for doing so, and it is only in the last week that he has asked for a new scheme to allow cash-out, which is moving the goalposts. When he talks about an aspiration for January, will he confirm that 17 January is the date he has in mind?

I cannot confirm a specific date in January, and I do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman says was offered by suppliers in June and July, but I will write to him and follow up on that to put it on record, at least for him and me.

I thank the Minister for his responses. The Government have been discussing energy support for Northern Ireland for some months now. Northern Ireland residents have been aware of the £600 energy payment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) referred to, yet no payment has been made. Concerns have been raised by those who have prepayment meters, and the three companies I have spoken to—SSE, Budget Energy and Northern Ireland Electricity—have stated that they have experienced difficulties or have been reluctant to sign up to the scheme. Can the Minister advise us of how these problems are being addressed, and—with respect, Minister—can we have a timescale so we can tell our constituents when the money will be delivered?

Nothing would give me greater pleasure than giving the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have particular affection and respect, an absolutely tight schedule. What I do not want to do is give a date that I cannot have certainty of delivering. This is working through the suppliers, and we are looking to see a scheme.

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of prepayment meters. It is administratively burdensome if we credit funds on to such a meter and then wish to remove those funds from it. I am told by the suppliers that that could lead, for instance, to the falling over of their call centres, which are not set up for that. We are looking to find workarounds for that to ensure that households in Northern Ireland get the funding, and it is my ambition to see them receive the full quantum—as I say, that will include the £200 for every single household in Northern Ireland, as opposed to GB—ahead of the completion of the EBSS payments in Great Britain.