Sinn Féin brought a motion to the floor of the Assembly today on the issue of energy prices in the wake of yet more price hikes in oil, gas, electricity, even coal. I put it to the Minister that we should look at the possibility of undertaking energy brokering and more radical measures to address energy prices as tinkering around the edges isn't working.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I rise to support the motion, and I very much welcome the debate that we have had today, although there is a sense of being resigned to the fact that there are a lot of limitations on what we can do. So, after today’s debate, we need to explore the options and come back with solutions as soon as possible, because there are not enough solutions on the table at present.
I went on to the Consumer Council website last night, and it contains a very useful tool to compare the prices of oil and fuel prices across different parts of the North. When looking through its archives from the past two years, you realise the effect of the prices. We can say that gas prices have gone up one third and that electricity prices have gone up 30%, but what does that mean in real terms? For example, the average price for 900 l of heating oil on 22 September was £533∙62. This time last year it was £396∙68, and two years ago it was £339∙56. So, that is an increase of £200 over two years for a fill of oil. Those are the kinds of figures that households are facing. Of course, as many Members have said, people from rural areas not only pay for oil but for a fill of fuel to go to work in Belfast every day. Some people come from west Tyrone and some come from north Antrim, and the price of fuel has shot through the roof in the past year.
In the past two years, we have been living in a period of the worst winters, certainly in my living memory, and that exacerbates the problems that we face. Of course, indicators from some sources in Roads Service suggest that this year will be worse again. So, not only will we have problems with our transport system, but that will add to the excess winter deaths that the Deputy Chair of the Social Development Committee referred to earlier. So, people need help and support, and we need to provide some solutions to those problems.
The Deputy Chair of the Social Development Committee, Mickey Brady, referred to a number of proposals that were presented to that Committee, one of which was energy brokering. A feasibility study has been carried out by the Housing Executive, the Consumer Council and Bryson Charitable Group, and it recommended that, by using local and central government procurement bodies to use their energy purchasing power as a base load, we could leverage a better deal for domestic consumers under one contractual tariff arrangement. So, the state, as opposed to a private company, could act as a broker on a cost-neutral, not-for-profit basis. That would increase savings to the consumers further. The report was based on the success of a Dutch initiative called Met de Stroom Mee, which sought the registration of 10,000 households that agreed to let it negotiate on their behalf directly with the energy companies. That is one alternative that we should look at.
Phil Flanagan opened the debate and made the important point that we should try to ensure that the House is undivided on this issue. I am glad that that is the case and that we have had a constructive debate. He referred to the fact that the chief executives of some energy companies are paid exorbitant salaries: £700,000, in one example. It is absolutely ridiculous that anybody earns that sort of money, given the pressures that ordinary people face and the fact that the worst off in society are in their worst position in some time.
He also raised the issue of Power NI proposals to plug the gap in pension shortages and the rural impact of energy prices, because oil is more expensive than gas, and, as Mickey Brady also said, 82% of homes use oil. That needs to be addressed. The Minister also referred to that when she said that we need to extend the gas network to ensure that people have more choice over what sort of energy they use.
Mr Flanagan also has a habit of using the F-word in debates these days: fracking, to which the Minister also referred. I do not know the details of that particular issue, but I am sure that there will be many more arguments about it.
Stephen Moutray proposed the amendment. He outlined that the Minister cannot set prices, and that is recognised. He also said that the construction and transport sectors are affected, so this is not only an issue of household prices, it affects how many jobs there are in the economy and causes us to lose more jobs than necessary. Mike Nesbitt also referred to the increasing levels of fuel poverty.
South Belfast Member Alasdair McDonnell emphasised that inroads had been made in regard to renewables and used the key word “sustainable”, which leads me to a major part of the problem. When he appeared before the Committee, the Utility Regulator referred to the fact that we are totally over-reliant on fossil fuels. Anna Lo made the pertinent point that Scotland is moving ahead in that regard. If we all get our heads together, there is absolutely no reason why we should not be in the same position, because we have the same potential. Look at Strangford and the coastline between Rathlin and Ballycastle; we should be a world leader in developing tidal energy technologies and using our natural resources.
Anna Lo referred to long-term sustainability and the fact that 99% of our energy needs are met through imported fuel. The Minister also said that difficult choices have to be made about renewables. I am sure that the Minister faces a lot of concerns in her constituency, as I do in North Antrim, where a lot of applications are made for wind turbines. The natural reaction from many constituents is, “Not in my backyard”. Therefore, we will sometimes face difficult choices. In his statement to the House earlier, the Education Minister said that sometimes we will have to make difficult decisions that will not be popular, but we need to have a long-sighted approach on energy if we are to ensure that we deliver in people’s best interests, particularly those in fuel poverty.
Sue Ramsey outlined the reasons put forward for price rises, including natural disasters, conflicts and more domestic issues, such as pension funds. She also said that absolute clarity and transparency are important when it comes to price rises, and you cannot disagree with that.
Mickey Brady, as Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, said that other measures must be explored by the Minister for Social Development and the Enterprise Minister. He outlined energy brokering and social tariffs. I suppose that the most pertinent point he made was that 756 older people died of cold-related illness last year.
Sometimes during debates, we look at the statistics and forget about the reality behind them. As Michael Copeland said earlier, it is shameful that the situation continues. I welcome the fact that the Minister said that she will make a joint statement with the Minister for Social Development with regard to moving the issue forward and dealing with fuel poverty. However, it needs to be something substantial. If it is not, she needs to look at the alternatives that are available; for example, at what they are doing in Holland and Britain with regard to social tariffs. If those cases prove to be successful, we need to apply them here.
Most importantly, we must not sit back and do nothing. We can tinker around the edges and put in place minor schemes to mitigate the impacts. However, we need radical policies in place if we are to deal with the real problem here, which is the statistics relating to those who are dying as the result of fuel poverty.