The Director of Neighbourhood Services submitted for the Committee’s consideration a report providing an update on the work being undertaken around the implementation of the Fuel Poverty Hardship Scheme.
After a lengthy discussion, the Committee agreed that the restriction which had been placed on the report be removed to enable it to be included in the minute of the meeting.
Accordingly, the Committee considered the following report:
“1.0 Purpose of Report/Summary of Main Issues
1.1 The purpose of this report is to update the Committee on the ongoing work to implement the Fuel Hardship scheme, as discussed previously at Committee and as agreed by the Council on 1st December, 2022.
2.1 In line with the Council decision of 1st December, the Committee is asked to:
i. note the proposed phased commencement of the scheme pre and post-Christmas implementation dependent upon partners’ capacity (as agreed by Full Council);
ii. note the proposed flexibility to support those who pay utilities via direct debit;
iii. note that the initial proposal to establish a Cost-of-Living Task Force has now been superseded by the decision taken by the Council on 1st December 2022, in relation to confirming eligibility criteria and design principles; and
iv. provide direction on the potential for the Council to support full cost recovery for strategic partners in relation to essential costs/expenses incurred in delivering the Fuel Hardship Scheme. NB. it is anticipated that, in total, this would amount to no more than £100,000 and would be awarded outside of the £1m allocated to the Fuel Hardship Fund.
3.0 Main Report
3.1 Members will recall the discussion at last month’s Committee meeting and subsequent decisions taken by the Council on 1st December, in relation to the design and delivery of the £1million Fuel Hardship Voucher Scheme. As instructed by Members, officers have continued to work up the practicalities on how the scheme would be implemented.
3.2 Taking into account the decision register for the Council meeting, officers have continued to work on the design and delivery framework for the scheme, incorporating the following planning assumptions:
· an increase in the value of the Fuel Hardship Fund to £1m;
· 100% of the £1m funding would be for the issue of one-off vouchers to eligible households;
· no allowance has been made in relation to ‘full cost recovery’ for delivery partners;
· strategic partners will receive 100% of their funding allocation upfront in order to get the vouchers on the ground as quickly as possible;
· the scheme would commence before Christmas where the delivery partners have capacity;
· the one-off vouchers would be for fuel (e.g. oil/gas/electricity or mixture of these); and
· there would be sufficient flexibility in the scheme to support those who pay for their utilities via direct debit.
3.3 Detailed work continues by officers and Strategic Partners to bring this scheme into effect. Based on discussions with delivery partners, a number of areas are set out below for the Committee’s consideration.
i Commencement - confirmed with strategic partners the ability to commence the scheme before Christmas where the capacity exists to do so;
ii Eligibility Criteria – in terms of ensuring flexibility in the scheme to support those who may pay for their utilities via direct debit, it has been confirmed that local arrangements can be put in place to enable the direct transfer of payment(s) to the recipient’s direct debit utility account via BACs. Delivery partners have indicated that, whilst this is possible, it is more complex and time consuming to implement;
iii Implementation Costs - Members are asked to note a strong consensus across strategic partners that the £1m funding made available by the Council should be allocated in full through the voucher scheme to those households in need. However, a number of partners also highlighted that there would be additional essential expenses and costs incurred in delivering the scheme (e.g. printing and distribution costs, extended work patterns including evening and weekend and associated staffing, volunteering, utility and fuel/transport costs);
iv Partners have stated that they do not wish to delay progress in getting the full £1m voucher scheme on the ground and recognised that any position taken on covering additional costs incurred will be subject to further political consideration and decision. Partners have therefore indicated that they are willing to proceed at risk, subject to Committee and Council decision on this issue. Members are therefore asked to consider whether an additional allocation of up to 10%/£100,000 could be made to support essential core costs attached to the delivery of the scheme. Partners have asked to provide officers with a figure in relation to covering the additional associated costs (on the understanding that this should be no more than 10% of their original funding allocation) and to included it in their project proposal documentation albeit with the caveat, as noted previously, that this will need member consideration and agreement; and
v Cost-of-Living Task Group – The decision taken by the Council on 1st December 2022 in relation to confirming the eligibility criteria and design principles for the Fuel Hardship Fund supersedes the need to take forward the proposal to set up a Cost-of-Living Task Group at this stage.
4.0 Financial and Resource Implications
4.1 Any discussion and/or decision in principle taken by the Committee in relation to meeting the cost implications of implementing the scheme over and above the £1,000,000 would have to be added to the 2022/23 forecast deficit of £2.7m and found through further in-year savings or out of specified reserves.
5.0 Equality and Good Relations
5.1 Whilst the scheme will be open to all eligible households on a first come first served basis and within budget limitations, targeted information will be shared with specific Section 75 groups including Age Friendly Groups, via the Migrant Forum, Disability Action and Locality Partnerships.”
After further discussion, the Committee adopted recommendations i., ii. and iii., as set out within the report. In terms of recommendation iv., it was agreed that the Council would support full cost recovery for strategic partners in relation to essential costs/expenses incurred in delivering the Fuel Hardship Scheme, up to a maximum of £100,000, which would be in addition to the £1m which had been allocated to the overall Fund.
The Committee noted, in response to a reference which had been made by a Member to a recent Spotlight broadcast around food bank users in Northern Ireland being targeted by paramilitary loan sharks, that the report on the use of strategic partners, which was due to be presented to the Committee early in the new year, would also include information on the oversight measures in place for the Fuel Poverty Hardship Scheme.