SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan has expressed his frustrations that Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has failed to review the current rate of Winter Fuel Payment.
Minister Hargey has the power to review the amount provided to pensioner households, yet the rate has not changed since 2010/11.
In response to Mr Durkan’s calls for a robust winter support package for pensioner households the Department for Communities (DfC) stressed their reluctance to deviate from parity with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP.)
Mr Durkan said the department’s continued reliance on support initiatives which existed prior to the cost of living crisis, rather than a tailored pension package, presented a lackadaisical approach.
The Foyle MLA commented:
“I’m hugely disappointed in the response from DfC in relation to a review into the rate of Winter Fuel Payment. It beggars belief that during a fuel crisis and given the predicted exponential increase in costs, the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has not seen fit to review, never mind increase, the rate of Winter Fuel Payment to assist elderly individuals to heat their homes in the months ahead. The rate available has remained unchanged for over a decade. In the interim fuel prices have skyrocketed effectively reducing the positive impact the Winter Fuel Payment once had. In essence people are getting less bang for their buck.
“Minister Hargey cannot rely on the old fail-safe excuse that the absence of an Executive prevents action on the matter. I’ve been lobbying for this necessary change over the course of the past two years. In October 2021 and May 2022 in response to my calls, the Minister advised that her officials were considering options and assured me that she had written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions regarding further support for older people. Almost a year on we are yet to see the fruits of that labour. Meanwhile, pensioner households are facing fuel poverty and the reality is that lives are at risk in the absence of adequate support.
“No household is immune to increasing energy costs but for pensioners, this crisis hits harder. They are at an increased risk of illness and worse if left unable to heat their homes. Their anxieties are palpable and I know many of my constituents are filled with a sense of dread ahead of the winter period with no plan in place.
“Reviewing the current rate of Winter Fuel Payment is a small step but a necessary one. The latest response underscores a complete lack of urgency and the reluctance to deviate from parity with DWP is cause for concern. Northern Ireland is set to be the hardest hit region across the UK in terms of fuel poverty levels and as such requires a separate, emergency approach to the fuel crisis.”