DUP Economy Minister’s claim that Stormont boycott having no bearing on delivery of energy bills discount is contested

MLAs have clashed over whether an Executive is needed to release emergency cost of living payments to the Northern Ireland public.

conomy Minister Gordon Lyons has urged the UK Government to “move quickly” to include NI in £400 energy payment scheme by upholding a commitment made in May.

Along with Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and the Utility Regulator, Mr Lyons met with the Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi in Belfast on Wednesday where a pledge was made to deliver the energy discount to struggling NI households.

When it was put to Mr Lyons that operational problems with getting the payment out to households here is a consequence of the DUP’s boycott of Stormont, the Minister told BBC Talkback “no, it’s not at all”.

He added: “The issues that we face in getting this money through are nothing to do with Executive approval. The issues are in relation to who has the legal responsibility.”

Mr Zahawi said this money can be delivered even in the event an Executive is not restored, however, he also referred to operational processes which need to be overcome.

However, the Department of Finance (DoF) and numerous MLAs have disputed that assertion.

A DoF spokesperson said: “In respect of the Energy Bills Support Scheme payment if an Executive was in place it would have been possible to receive this funding via a Barnett consequential for allocation to a Department locally to administer the funding.

“As there is no Executive, the Treasury is working with Departments locally to examine possible options to deliver support.

“The allocation of any additional, non ring-fenced, funding received through a Barnett consequential requires Executive approval.”

Other MLAs have also weighed in, arguing that if an Executive was in place then people could be supported through the cost of living crisis.

Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood described the Economy Minister’s comments as “significant” and “disingenuous”.

She pointed to an Assembly question answered in June about how his department’s plans to address rising energy prices in both the gas and electricity markets.

In response he mentioned the role of devolved ministers saying: “The DfE Energy Team is engaging with the Department of Finance (DoF) to understand the application of this support in Northern Ireland.

“My Department continues to have an oversight role in the Utility Regulator’s (UR) regulation of gas tariffs charged by the dominant suppliers in the Greater Belfast and Ten Towns license areas and also the largest electricity supplier in Northern Ireland.

“This ensures that customers pay no more than the efficient costs of purchasing and supplying the energy plus an agreed profit margin set by the UR.”

Last month the Minister for Communities answered a question posed by Claire Sugden.

She asked for details of her department’s long-term plan to support lower-income households who are facing price increases for food, goods and services.

Minister Hargey made it clear that “no functioning Executive or an agreed Executive budget means Departments are facing serious challenges.”

She added: “Despite this, I am committed to doing all within my power to put money into peoples’ pockets.

“I have tasked my officials to fully explore and expedite all options to address both the immediate needs of, and medium to longer term solutions to, the cost of living crisis.

“I have also reconvened the Emergencies Leadership Group as part of a strategic response to the cost of living crisis,” she added.

Leader of the Opposition Matthew O’Toole MLA has said that Stormont and Whitehall Ministers must start to take the cost of living crisis facing households across Northern Ireland seriously.

Mr O’Toole was speaking after SDLP Opposition MLAs met a number of organisations at Stormont today to discuss the impact of the energy, food and fuel costs crisis on people across the North.

He said: “The hard truth is that this crisis is going to get worse. Energy prices are predicted to increase further, interest rates are going up and it’s going to make life incredibly difficult for thousands of people.

“We have heard testimony from people with disabilities about their fears for the months ahead and a difficult winter.

“We’ve spoken to retail sector representatives who are worried about the viability of local businesses. And we’ve heard from trade unions about the low wage crisis facing workers in almost every sector.

“It is astounding, and frankly pathetic, therefore to hear the Economy Minister suggest that the failure to get support to people who need it is unlinked to the absence of government in Northern Ireland that is being perpetuated by his party.”

While TUV Upper Bann spokesperson Darrin Foster welcomed “unambiguous confirmation” from the Chancellor that the payment from Westminster to assist with energy costs does not require a Stormont Executive.

“This, of course, was known all along, given that the money was always going to be coming from HM Treasury.

“It does, however, cut the feet out from under those both in politics and the media who have sought to use this issue to beat Unionists for daring to refuse to implement the Protocol – something which a restoration of Stormont at present would inevitably involve.

“The Chancellor has busted the myth that devolution is necessary in order for this scheme to progress and in truth many Unionists are questioning the point of having devolution at all.”

The Departments for the Economy and Communities were also contacted for comment.

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