Northern Ireland news

Emergency scheme to help ease fuel costs described as 'shambles'

Alliance MLA Kelly Armstrong has criticised the scheme. Picture by Mark Marlow

AN emergency scheme set up to help ease the burden of fuel costs on vulnerable families across Northern Ireland has been described as a "shambles".

There was also criticism last night that the £2 million Emergency Winter Fuel Payment scheme had not been properly promoted.

Opened last Thursday by the Department for Communities working with Bryson Charitable Group, the Consumer Council and energy companies, it is aimed at helping households tackle rising fuel costs.

The scheme, which runs until March 31, will be available to support for 20,000 households towards their electric, gas or oil bill.

But with a cap of 330 payments a day, many people have been unable to apply for the £100 payout due to the daily limit.

Concerns have been raised about the scheme with Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong last night criticising its "extraordinarily tight criteria".

"The grant hasn't been promoted properly because this isn't a grant if you're just in fuel poverty, this is for people who are in fuel poverty and are about to be cut off," she told Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"We have pushed the department to say what about other people who are in poverty and there may well be something later for people who are struggling with the increased costs.

"The system is going to be open until 31 March, but it's cold now, people are in trouble now."

Aontú councillor Denise Mullen also said she had been "inundated with calls from very vulnerable constituents" unable to access the scheme.

"These desperate people are calling daily from 9am only to realise that the lines are already closed," she said.

"Constituents are extremely frustrated, but beyond this, I have a number of young families who are truly desperate and are currently unable to heat their homes.

"This is completely unacceptable, and I would appeal to Minister Deirdre Hargey to step in immediately and take control of this shambles, not only ensuring that the many people who need to access the funds are serviced but also to consider increasing the subsidy."

The Department for Communities said the scheme was "only a very small part of the planned overall response to the crisis" with 290,632 people already receiving winter fuel payments.

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