That was the unanimous message sent from councillors across the political divide who voted in favour of writing to ‘the Northern Ireland Executive calling on it to establish a task force to agree actions to protect and support people in the face of spiralling energy prices.’
They also 'acknowledged the international scale of the energy crisis means the response requires support from the British Government and called on them to remove the VAT from energy bills during the crisis and to implement a windfall tax on highly profitable energy companies.’
The message from the Chamber was loud and clear, unless action is taken many families and individuals will find themselves struggling to make ends meet, with one councillor saying ‘it is going to be a winter of pain’.
The motion was brought forward by SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell.
He said: “We are constantly bombarded with news of ever increasing energy costs, whether it’s gas prices or electricity prices. It is constant and it is relentless. Everyone is impacted by these price rises, some can absorb these costs but many in our society can not.
“Spiralling energy costs, the rising cost of living and the cruel and callous cuts to Universal Credit have left families and individuals right across the North in an awful situation. The Executive needs to act, it needs to agree on actions to support people through a very difficult winter.
“I’m not going to be prescriptive about those actions, but the Utility Regulator, the Consumer Council and energy suppliers must establish hardship funds to assist the most vulnerable customers.
“Two massive opportunities exist. The British Government has the ability to remove VAT on energy bills and it’s important that our Executive speaks with one voice on this demand.
“There is scope to widen and extend the scope and scale of the Winter Fuel Payment Scheme using unpaid Executive funds.
“The Executive needs to act and needs to act urgently because families and individuals across the North are crying out for support.”
Welcoming the motion, DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney said: “It is a very important issue at the moment. When we see the price of energy spiralling out of control with increases up to 30% and the cost of living is spiralling out of control too.
“It is important that the Executive act to support the people who are suffering at the moment with the energy prices and food crises. We have always heard this issue, we can’t afford to heat if we are going to eat. People are now going to fall into the scenario where they can’t afford to heat or eat.
“I do fear with the food poverty and fuel poverty that’s affecting many people that we are facing a crisis that has never been seen before in the modern era.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Sandra Duffy added her concerns to the debate.
“As a party we have been exploring practical ways this can be addressed,” she said. “We have undoubtedly been in the midst of a cost of living crisis, as we see energy prices soar largely due to global demand at the same time as inflation is rising and food and other costs are increasing.
“These price hikes do not look likely to be reversed in the short term and therefore in Sinn Féin’s view it is imperative that the British Government recognises the scale of the crisis and intervenes to support struggling workers, families and businesses.
“This will be a difficult winter for many families and we need to look at all the measures we have to try and limit the impact and ensure people can heat their homes and put food on their tables.”
Referring back to last year, Alliance Councillor Rachael Ferguson said: “Families and residents in our city and district are struggling with rising costs.
“January just past and last winter, we as a council could not keep up with the demand for fuel, food and care packages support. We tried, and through our Poverty Working Group we did try to give support to our community structures and local charities. Those groups and charities were inundated with requests for fuel primarily, food and other support.
“Now we are looking at another even worse winter with the rising costs of fuel, heating and electric - it’s horrendous.
“Many times in this Chamber we discuss how families are having to choose between food and heat. What will happen to these families? They won’t be able to afford fuel for their car, electric for their lights and now heating has been made even more expensive. We need to look at ways to bring these costs down and we need it now.”
Describing the situation as an ‘unacceptable and shameful position for a developed country such as ourselves to be in’, UUP Alderman Ryan McCready added: “It needs remedied pretty quick. I believe the Minister (of Communities) needs to urgently bring forward a support package to support those who face that unacceptable choice - either heat your home or eat.”
Speaking of the difficulties many will face, PBP Councillor Shaun Harkin said: “We are running out of ways of describing the challenges people are going to be facing this winter.
“I don’t think heat or eat sums it up any more. I think what we are seeing now is that people will not be able to heat or eat and that’s the challenge many people are facing. There is going to be a winter of pain.
“The Executive parties have known that energy prices were out of control for a long time and the idea now that they are going to set up a task force is a bit late. Again, this is about inaction by the Stormont Executive and of course Westminster when it comes to defending and standing up for ordinary people.”
Summing up, Councillor Farrell concluded: “As councillors we are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society on a daily basis and these rising energy costs are going to make people more vulnerable.
“The Executive needs to act and act decisively otherwise vast swathes of our society are going to face a winter of discontent.”
The motion passed unanimously.