Derry & Strabane Council to issue £100 payments for those in fuel crisis

Derry City and Strabane Council will allocate £308k to a hardship fund which will direct financial support for emergency fuel payments to assist people in financial distress.

However, the eligibility criteria for the Emergency Fuel Payment Programme offering households in financial distress £100 towards a fuel bill proved to be a sticking point for many councillors on the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee.

The issue of the eligibility criteria will now be discussed at a meeting of the Hardship Working Group next week.

The committee did approve the recommendation that an on-line promotions campaign to support donations to food banks, to encourage people to avail of fuel clubs and to apply for insulation grants would be undertaken, that council would support the Public Health Authority, NI Housing Executive and local organisations to re-introduce fuel stamps and that council would meet any shortfall in funding for advice services in 22/23.

Some of the attendance at a previous Derry Against Fuel Poverty rally in Waterloo Square. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2209GS – 070

Addressing the committee, Oonagh McGillion, Council Director of Legacy said: “Given the scale of the crisis there are financial and legal constraints in relation to what we can do and whilst one off payments are of some benefit, there’s quite a significant amount of work that needs to be done to address the root causes of poverty.”

The committee heard that it would be necessary to apply some criteria to the fund with the  rationale for the application of eligibility criteria to ensure that the support reaches those most in need at a particular time. 

The Director of Legacy added: “Unfortunately, it is not possible to design a programme that supports everyone experiencing fuel poverty and consequently this programme is targeting support to households who are experiencing financial distress and do not have the financial resources to pay a fuel bill or to top up their credit for an energy supply.”

The recommended minimum criteria were: the household must be within the Council area; the household must have a gross annual income of less than £30,000 or someone within the household has recently been made unemployed (within the last six weeks) or that their benefits have been interrupted (within the last six weeks) and the household must demonstrate that they have insufficient finance to pay a bill.

Derry's Guildhall.

Although welcoming progress on the hardship fund, SDLP Colr. Rory Farrell stated his party ‘weren’t over the moon with the criteria’.

He said: “We welcome progress on developing this £308k hardship fund. People across this city and district are really struggling with the soaring cost of living and it’s up to us to help them as much as we can. We do have issues with criteria for the fuel payment. As it stands it’s open to households with a gross income of less than £30,000 and not open to households with an income of £30,000 or more.

“We don’t want to see anybody who is genuinely facing hardship excluded from this scheme and the current criteria provides for a single person who is earning £29,999 a year to apply for the scheme and a family with four children earning £1 more a year can’t. So we have an issue with that. We feel the criteria needs to be revisited by the Hardship Working Group.”

Echoing Councillor Farrell’s sentiments, Sinn Fein Councillor Paul Fleming shared his concerns with the criteria saying: “We are mindful as well that it doesn’t become too bureaucratic and we agree the criteria needs to be brought back to the working group for them to take another look at it.”

Stating ‘the only criteria we should have is one per household but the people live in this city and district’, Aontu Councillor Emmet Doyle added: “I recognise having looked through a number of schemes myself  that it’s so difficult to put together criteria but what we have is a copy of the Bryson Scheme and I don’t need to tell any members about the difficulties people had around trying to provide proof of hardship or proof of income. 

“In particular I’m thinking of people who are elderly who for example won’t or may not be able to log in to an app on their phone or print out a bank statement or people for example who are self employed and have income that is fluctuating from month to month.”

A number of councillors questioned the Director as to how the £100 would be paid out to which Ms McGillion responded that it would be a direct payment to the fuel supplier. She added: “The householder would come forward and if they said they were running out of electricity you would make a payment directly to their electricity supplier or fuel oil supplier so there would be no cash changing hands.”

Colr. Farrell then proposed that the ‘eligibility criteria and review process for the Emergency Fuel Payment Programme of £100 be passed back to the working group to iron out the criteria’ with all members in agreement.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter