Over 2,000 Derry & Strabane households to get £100 emergency fuel payments from Council

Derry & Strabane Council has confirmed that over 2,400 households in desperate need of support will be able to apply for an emergency £100 off electricity or oil bills through the only Council-run scheme of its kind in Northern Ireland.

Derry City and Strabane Council’s £250,000 Emergency Fuel Support Programme is expected to open next week.

There will be no direct gas support although people with gas who are struggling can instead apply to have £100 off electricity bills.

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The scheme is the brainchild of local reps who wished to do what they could to provide some assistance to people who are facing extreme hardship, although they acknowledged that the hardship fund coffers would only stretch so far and that the need locally was much greater than could be accommodated by this standalone initiative.

The scheme will be facilitated by Bryson, Advice NW teams and the The Resource Centre, Carnhill.

Members of the Governance and Strategic Planning committee heard that there were challenges providing support for gas ‘pay as you go’ customers as Firmus said they didn’t have the capacity to operate the scheme in the manner council required.

Director of Legacy at Derry City and Strabane Council, Oonagh McGillion brought the report before the committee saying: “We were conscious, particularly a couple of months ago when we had initially hoped to go out around October time that there was very, very significant demand and a lot of queries coming in to the advice service partners and to the council itself and that demonstrates the extent of the need that we have within our council area.

“It’s so unfortunate that whilst £250,000 is a significant amount of money in its own right, that it will really only touch the surface in terms of the need that’s there.

“We have said it on a number of occasions the importance of really stressing that it’s an emergency. We know there is a lot of need out there but it’s people who are unable to pay a bill or get a top up that we really want to come forward in terms of this referral mechanism.”

Proposer: Colr. Conor Heaney.

The Director explained that the scheme was ‘challenging in terms of gas and pay as you go customers’. Committee members were also told that in order to proceed with the implementation of the programme a decision was required on the three fuel types.

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Ms McGillion said: “We have no difficulty making the payments for the electricity both for billed customers and ‘pay as you go’ customers. We have no difficulty with generating the codes in terms of oil customers through an oil broker.

“Where we have the challenge is getting sufficient gas pay as you go customers through as quickly as possible in order to give integrity to an emergency fuel programme.

“If you want to proceed with the programme as it is, whereby we would allocate the budget in its entirety, have one call for referrals and get this money out as quickly as possible then as it was proposed at the Hardship Fund Working Group on Friday that we wouldn’t proceed with the gas as a fuel option, that we would open the programme with both electricity and oil as options.”

Welcoming the report, Sinn Féin councillor Conor Heaney described it as a ‘torturous process’, adding: “We are the only council across the North that has decided to do this although we have acknowledged right from the start that this is a drop in an ocean of need, but as council we are trying to do something to contribute to the huge amount of dire poverty that people are finding themselves in. We need to get this money out as quickly as possible and targeted at the people who need it most.”

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“It is disappointing that a way couldn’t be sorted to deliver support with gas because gas prices are astronomical at the minute but I accept that every avenue has been tried and explored and we can’t hold up this process anymore.

“People who are gas customers and need support could be supported with electricity at the same time. It’s disappointing but we need to get this out.”

Councillor Heaney then proposed the normal process of ratification at full council could be forgone in order to get the programme out as soon as possible.

Agreeing the money needs to be ‘in people’s pockets’, councillor Raymond Barr added: “As I said at the working group meeting, the longer this goes on there’s a real danger it loses its effectiveness. The problems in facilitating the supply of gas appear to be insurmountable now.

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“We need to work with officers and accept the recommendation. The purpose of the fund was to get money into people’s pockets to alleviate hardship and I think that’s what we must do now.”

Commending the Derry Against Fuel Poverty group who were present in the chamber for the report, People Before Profit councillor Shaun Harkin commented: “We know the level of need across the district is dire and people need help now so it’s important we get it out now. That help should be coming from central government and we have to keep the pressure on there.”

Speaking about how the original intention of this scheme was to provide £100 of oil, £100 of gas or £100 of electricity, SDLP councillor Rory Farrell said: “We have committed to providing £100 of support within the available budget and finally we have got here, it has taken a while but we have got here.”

“We have had lengthy discussions at the working group but it has become apparent that we aren’t in a position to deliver that support for gas customers which is utterly disappointing.

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“We reluctantly support the proposal to make it for just oil and electricity and we support councillor Heaney’s proposal to circumvent full council and allow this money to be approved and go out to people as soon as possible.”

Alderman Derek Hussey added: “Lets not forget this is an emergency fund, this is for someone whose oil tank is empty or someone who can’t pay their electricity but we have to be realistic, we are talking about 2,405 households in our district. The need and number is far in excess of that and within a week that money will be gone. Let’s be pragmatic and get the £100 out to people within our council area as soon as possible.”

The Director, Ms McGillion clarified that although the scheme is unable to provide gas support, gas customers can apply and they can seek referrals for support for electricity.

The City solicitor also confirmed the programme could legally proceed without going first to full council.

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Members unanimously approved getting the programme signed off and getting the support as soon as possible.

They also approved the recommendations to the appoint Advice NW and Resource Centre Derry (Carnhill) to undertake the eligibility checks; make a charitable donation of £240,500 to the Bryson Group who will provide 2,405 payments of £100 of emergency fuel support and appoint the Bryson Group as the Fuel Payment Partner.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter