SDLP Communities Spokesperson Mark H Durkan has welcomed overdue clarity on when people will receive payment through the Energy Payment Support Scheme.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey told the Assembly people would begin to receive payments from March 10.
Mr Durkan said it was regrettable that people would receive the money near the beginning of spring and not during the cold winter period.
Foyle MLA Mr Durkan said:
“Families have been crying out for this support for months, we have just come through a very cold period and now as the weather is beginning to turn people will finally get this money. I have pressed the Minister consistently since the scheme was announced in early January for a payment date. No answer was forthcoming, instead many people were forced to make it through the winter with no support while they were unable to heat their homes. While it will help people in the short-term we have seen from the rising cost of heating bills that it will only be a sticking plaster approach at best.
“The crisis caused by inflation and soaring bills for everything from food to fuel is showing no signs of slowing down and people will likely be bearing the brunt of it for months to come. We are going to see the reliance on food banks, already at a record high, increase and people will be unable to put food on the table.
“While I accept that many of the causes of this dire situation are outside our control, there is more we can be doing to support people here and mitigate these price increases. Last year the SDLP produced an Energy Costs Action Plan that outlined ideas to address the fuel crisis in both the long and short-term, unfortunately this was ignored by Minister Hargey.
“Quite frankly, this payment comes too little too late. The Minister had promised that payments would be made by early February yet two months since the scheme was announced, this money is not in the pockets of hard-pressed individuals and their families. The delay has meant that people couldn't avail of cheaper fuel prices, particularly those in areas of high fuel poverty like my constituency of Foyle which has been hit by gas hike after gas hike. There is no indication either as to what support will be available for families who can't avail this scheme.
“While we are seeing other parts of these islands step up and support people who need it, we are hamstrung by the lack of Executive following the DUP’s selfish decision to collapse it. Even prior to its collapse, the attempts at support were minimal and bungled in their execution. We need to see a real effort to protect people here from this escalating crisis, it’s only going to get worse and those with the power to intervene cannot stand by and do nothing. We need to put people first and exhaust every avenue of support available.”