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.

IMF awaits confrontation

Thousands of protesters are expected to turn out in Washington this weekend for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

UN Millennium Development Goals
Halve poverty and hunger by 2015
Universal primary education
Promote gender equality
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

Joining the ubiquitous anti-globalisation contingent will be fresh reserves of demonstrators opposed to the US war on terrorism and the heated conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The IMF and World Bank are accustomed to new-found criticism from nascent foes. But the Bretton Woods institutions have rarely experienced the stinging internal conflict currently being seen among its founding member countries.

Not the least of which is an ongoing disagreement between UK International Development Secretary Clare Short and Bush administration officials.

Grants or loans?

At the heart of the conflict is a suggestion by President George W Bush, backed by Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, that the lending bodies should focus more on grants to poor countries than loans.

Mr O'Neill, speaking at a conference on global development in February, said past IMF and World Bank loan polices had driven poor countries "into the ditch" and called for more aid in the form of grants.

Ms Short called the proposal "crazy" and said the US plan to convert aid payments into grants would "wreck" the World Bank's lending programmes.

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, has taken a more diplomatic tone but nonetheless confers with that assessment.

Last autumn at a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations in Ottawa, Canada, he called such a scheme unsupportable, noting simply giving money to developing nations was a sure-fire way to put the bank out of business.

Human dignity

Despite the ongoing debate over loans and grants as well as other matters, few would argue the efforts of the IMF and World Bank to reduce poverty are under greater scrutiny since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

About 16% of the world's population lives in dire poverty, defined as surviving on less than $1 (70p) a day.

Those grim conditions are thought to be the feeding ground for terrorist groups and one reason President Bush backed a United Nations (UN) plan in March that pushed development as an antidote to poverty.

Mr Bush told delegates gathered in Monterrey, Mexico, the fight against poverty was "a fight for opportunity, because opportunity is a fundamental right to human dignity".

Aside from boosting the amount of aid given to poorer nations, the UN scheme also calls for greater use of international trade as a way to lift countries out of poverty.

Vigorous action

While few saw many concrete results at the Monterrey meeting, many welcomed the renewed pledge by participants to focus on the plight of the poor.

In an effort to capitalise on the revived spirit, the World Bank's Wolfensohn renewed his call on Monday to rich nations for increased aid to the poorest of the poor, those nations thought least able to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

Mr Wolfensohn, along with other champions of the impoverished, has called on wealthy countries to double the amount of aid now supplied to developing nations in order to halve the number of poor.

Parts of his seven-part plan for combating poverty call for vigorous action on debt relief, a boost in international trade and a proposal to "fast track" 10 nations - to be selected in June - for immediate, increased support to meet educational goals.

Mr Wolfensohn is pushing for quick action on these initiatives and others before the consensus borne in Mexico withers.

War on terror

Also at the spring meetings, finance ministers from the G7 will meet to press for more cooperation from other countries to take aggressive action against terrorist money flows.

US officials fear the solidarity among nations crafted immediately following the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington to combat terrorist networks may be weakening.

Mr O'Neill is calling on other governments to establish police units that specialise in money laundering and other financial crimes.

He says these countries need to rely less on the US for technical aid and hopes those countries without technical expertise can call on other nations that do.

He has rallied the US's staunchest allies - Britain, France and Germany - in an effort to reinvigorate a worldwide campaign to target terrorist groups.

To date, the US has identified nearly 200 people or organisations it believes have links to terrorism.

About $100m from those individuals or groups has been seized by authorities the world over.