Stormont on Friday: Fuel Poverty Punishing Pensioners and Prisoners Training for Freedom

A select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days

We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.

Cold comfort for older people? During question time, the DUP’s Pam Brown asked the Minister for Social Development for his assessment of fuel poverty for those aged 60+. Mr McCausland revealed that fuel poverty affects 295,000 homes in NI – 42% of the total – of which 135,710 have a householder older than 60. He said over half of all householders aged between 60 and 74 is in fuel poverty, with this figure rising to 60% for those who are 75+, adding that it is “quite clear” older people suffer disproportionately.

After hearing that the main DSD initiatives to alleviate fuel poverty are the ongoing warm homes scheme and boiler replacement scheme, Sinn Fein’s Mickey Brady noted that every week a “large sum” of pension credit is left unclaimed in NI, and asked how the Minister was addressing the issue. Mr McCausland said income is one of only three factors affecting fuel poverty, and that increasing benefits uptake has been a priority for the department in the past two years, with targeted interventions – which he said were continuing, aimed at older people – in place.

Danny Kinahan of the UUP noted that fuel poverty rates have only fallen by 2% in recent years – from 44% to 42% – and asked if this was an indication of DSD failure in tackling the problem. The Minister said this was not the case, and noted that there are various other departments who have responsibilities in this area.

 

Is rehabilitation working? The Alliance Party tabled a question for the Minster of Justice asking him to outline plans to increase employment opportunities for prisoners through access to training and experience whilst in custody. Mr Ford said putting offenders at the centre of the prison system is crucial to reform, aiding community reintegration and making society safer as a result – with education, training and employment one of the chief pillars committed to by NIPS.

The Minister said there will be a “modernised learning and skills service” with work well under way on a revised curriculum and delivery model during 2014. He identified Mugshots – a social enterprise putting designs on items such as T-shirts and cups – as one scheme already providing experience, while other initiatives are also up and running.

Lord Morrow of the DUP said his concern is “always with the victims of violence”, and asked what message such schemes send to them. Mr Ford said he agreed that victims’ needs are paramount, as illustrated by the victims and witnesses’ strategy, but said there is an obligation to offer rehabilitation for offenders, before agreeing with a Sinn Fein question that a lack of purposeful activity means this process is fundamentally undermined. The SDLP asked what changes had been made in respect of provision at Hydebank Wood, with the Minister saying he hopes to outsource education and skills provision formally in the “near future”.

The NI Assembly is in recess until January 6, with Stormont on Friday back later that week. Have a good Christmas everyone!

Want in-depth monitoring of Northern Ireland politics? Just get in touch with Ryan – ryanmiller@nick-garbutt.com

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