In a two pronged approach, the SDLP has met with legal clerks in the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster to discuss what legal powers are available to bring forward emergency legislation to help people with the spiralling energy costs.
The moves follow comments by the Finance Minister that legal advice prevents him from allocating £300 million currently unspent in Stormont's block grant. SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood MP has said that if the Finance Minister can't find the means to act, then his party will seek to step in and explore every avenue and every option to get this money into people's pockets.
The SDLP is reaching out across the political spectrum and the SDLP Leader will tomorrow (Thursday) make a formal proposal at the Party Leaders meeting for collaborative working to explore all options to protect people from the current crisis.
SDLP Leader, Colum Easwood MP said:
“What families are experiencing is no longer a cost of living crisis, it's an emergency. Food, fuel and energy bills are out of control and families right across the North are desperately struggling to make ends meet. While there are only two existing small schemes focused on alleviating fuel costs for some, this only scratches the surface and leaves thousands - who desperately need help too - without a penny of support from Stormont.
"With reports stating that bills are expected to be higher than previously predicted as oil and gas prices surge, Energy UK has said it is possible to “expect bills to be anywhere between £2,500 and £3,000 in October” That is a terrifying possibility. And it's a price people in Northern Ireland simply can't afford to pay. We know there is £300 million sitting in Stormont waiting to be spent. These rising bills are the most pressing priority for people right now, so we desperately need to get this money into people's pockets now.
"It is incumbent on all of us, whether in the Assembly or at Westminster to now work collectively to explore what can be done to help people now. We cannot sit idly by and wait for this crisis to consume families here. If legal advice is stopping the Finance Minister from spending this money, then we need to find another way to get this money out fast. After all, legislating and making the law to protect people must be every politician's priority.
"In the Assembly, our Social Justice Spokesperson Mark H Durkan MLA has already commenced work with legal clerks to explore if a Private Members Bill focused on devolved competencies can be accelerated as an emergency PMB. And in Westminster I have engaged with clerks and directly with the Secretary of State to explore what options are open to compel the British Government to assist us with curbing this crisis.
"We need to explore every option to find a way to protect and support families from these rising costs. That is why, tomorrow, at the Party Leader's forum, I formally propose that all parties work with us to explore emergency legislation. With time running out on this mandate and the unprecedented nature of this crisis, I am urging parties to work with us not against us, as we seek to protect people from this escalating emergency.”
SDLP Social Justice Spokesperson Mark H Durkan MLA said:
“The SDLP is already pressing for action. We are calling on other Ministers to extend the winter fuel payment to all families, not just those on benefits. We have also been campaigning to see the £20 cut in Universal Credit reversed and our Energy Action Plan includes measures to curb the rising costs of energy. However, if Ministers can't or won’t take this action, we are exploring if an emergency Private Members Bill in the Assembly can get this money into people's pockets fast to help with their next oil or gas bill. While we will not be precious, if there are faster routes, here or in London nor will we pretend that we have all the solutions, we are willing to work with everyone and anyone, to help people feeling these pressures right now.
“The SDLP is acutely aware that all of these costs and bills are already hitting home. Whether it’s through Westminster or the Assembly, we in the SDLP will be seeking an emergency payment for families across the North. Just like Covid, this is a growing crisis, that will financially hit families impacting on health, wellbeing and our wider economy. We need an urgent intervention to help.
People have had enough of political crisis here and the current collapse of the Executive is directly hitting their pockets at the worst possible time. People need help now and for the SDLP protecting people from this crisis is our number one priority.”