Tuesday, April 16, 2002

NIE rapped for fuel poverty scheme

A scheme to help people in Northern Ireland out of the fuel poverty trap has come under fire in the Stormont Assembly.
Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE), the province's main electricity company, was unable to tell the assembly's enterprise committee how many people had been helped by a £9m levy.

The company was told that the lack of information was a "terrible indictment" of the programme.

The scheme, which is part of a UK-wide programme, helps families who are unable to heat their homes properly.

It is estimated that up to 200,000 people in Northern Ireland may be affected.

NIE provide low energy light bulbs, extra insulation and more efficient heating systems.

More than half of the money is raised from a levy on customers bills.

But did it all work? NIE estimated savings of £45m across the province but were unsure about any individual benefits.

"We can put in the best heating systems and all the installation measures and energy saving light bulbs but we can' ensure they will be taken out of fuel poverty," an NIE spokesman told the committee.


"Those people might not have the money to run the heating system."

It is planned to raise the levy from £2 to £5 to raise even more money and the assembly has already passed this increase.

One committee member at the hearing was very concerned at the lack of information.

Dara O'Hagan for Sinn Fein said, "Last year the assembly voted to increase the levy. We have ownership of it and we want to see it administered in a proper, effective way.

"I am disturbed that you can come here and say you hope you have taken people out of fuel poverty. We need facts and figures."

An NIE spokesman explained that to get the figures would require knowing details of people's incomes and how much they spent on fuel.

"Customers would be very concerned if we started recording this sort of information in detail."

But some of the committee did not accept the argument.

DUP assembly member Jim Wells said: "We seem to have spent a lot of money funding a lot of projects and the figures for fuel poverty seem to be the same.

"You weren't able to tell us how many families have been taken out of fuel poverty. If we still have the same numbers then something is wrong."

NIE have been left to lick their wounds.

Measurable objectives

They administer the scheme for the local Department of Trade and Enterprise and the electricity regulator OFREG.

In a statement after the meeting the company explained, "The Customer Energy Efficiency Levy was introduced by Government and the Energy Regulator in l997 as part of a commitment to reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions and provide energy savings for disadvantaged customers.

"The levy is a UK-wide component of electricity and gas bills and to-date; NIE has managed the Northern Ireland programme almost twice as effectively as its GB counterparts. (Measured in cost effectiveness of energy saved per £1 spent.)."

But the committee still want to see facts and figures.

When the scheme was launched, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland said; "If the levy is to be targeted mainly towards fuel poverty rather than energy efficiency, then clear, measurable objectives must be established to ensure the funds are used most effectively."

It is those objectives that NIE were unable to put before the assembly's committee.