Unspent money from the high street voucher scheme should be used to help with soaring energy bills in Northern Ireland, according to the SDLP's Matthew O'Toole. round GBP145m was allocated to the pre-paid cards, granting everyone over the age of 18 GBP100 to spend in bricks and mortar retailers in a bid to boost the high street. Mr O'Toole said in the wake of rising energy prices and warnings over a cost-of-living crisis, any excess money from the high street voucher scheme should be repurposed to help "vulnerable families". The Department confirmed the main GBP145m allocated to the scheme is "ring-fenced" and can only be spent on the high street voucher.
The MLA also challenged the timing of the voucher scheme and branded it "an example of abysmal Executive prioritisation". His suggestion followed the demand from Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong that the GBP2m Holiday at Home voucher should also be scrapped as part of a drive to save funds for helping those struggling to heat their homes. The call comes on the day Firmus Energy announced its third price hike for customers in the company's Ten Towns network and will see the average householder facing additional GBP270 yearly cost for cooking and heating their homes.
Last month the Utility Regulator warned of further energy price hikes due to the "unprecedented" increases in the wholesale market and companies could not be forced to operate at a loss. John French from the regulator predicted customers will continue to see high costs until at least next summer. In September, Mr Lyons ploughed an additional GBP21 million into the Spend Local scheme as a contingency to cover the risk of receiving more applications than expected.
The SDLP south Belfast MLA argued this contingency fund should be redirected by the Executive into helping deal with the energy crisis "at a bare minimum". "The Executive should look to reprioritise the GBP21 million contingency fund for the high street voucher scheme towards helping the most vulnerable deal with the increased cost of energy this winter," he said. "The fact that we are spending over GBP160 million on a high street voucher scheme - at the wrong time of year to have maximal economic impact - will strike many of us an example of abysmal Executive prioritisation.
"There needs to be an Executive taskforce urgently convened by the finance, communities and economy ministers to agree actions to help get vulnerable people through this winter. "Conor Murphy should also use his office to insist the Treasury return some of the expected windfall in VAT receipts to devolved administrations to help deal with the crisis." In a statement on Thursday, Finance Minister Murphy confirmed he has written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury asking that the VAT costs of 5% for domestic users and 20% for business are waived for a period of time.
The Sinn Fein minister said he was calling on the UK Treasury to "act now" in order to support "the many families and businesses facing a very uncertain winter". Earlier on Thursday, Ms Armstrong asked whether it was "appropriate" that the Economy Department was planning to issue vouchers for people to spend on domestic holidays. Last month Mr Lyons had cast doubt on the GBP2 million project as he remarked that it is now a matter of "if", not when, it proceeds.
The scheme is intended to give households in Northern Ireland a GBP100 voucher off a two-night stay in accommodation after it has been paid for, or a GBP20 voucher off a visit to a tourist attraction. The Alliance Party MLA told BBC's Talkback: "We also need as a government to think about how we are spending our money and that is why I have to ask is it worthwhile at this stage putting money into vouchers?" "I know it is not going to be the same amount of money as the high street voucher scheme... at this stage it just seems wrong, when we have people in Northern Ireland, in a first world country sitting cold in their houses, while others are able to apply for a voucher potentially to go to a local hotel.
"I know over covid that industry has been really harmed but is this the right time to do that when we have people sitting cold, children sitting cold." She added: "To be honest 2 million isn't going to do too much but it is two million we could be putting into cold people's homes instead of spending it on holiday vouchers. "I know that sounds very hard but these are the decisions we have to take.
"I cannot live with myself if someone is sitting cold in their homes. It is about prioritsation. This is a live or die situation."
A Department for the Economy spokesperson said: "The Executive allocated GBP145million to DfE to roll out the High Street Scheme. The allocation was ring-fenced, meaning it can only be spent on the scheme. We do not expect there to be any underspend of this allocation.
Due to uncertainty in the population figures, the Minister took the prudent decision to set aside an additional GBP21million for contingency for the High Street Scheme, from funding which had already been allocated by the Executive to DfE for its Economic Recovery Action Plan.
"The funding allocated to DfE for its Economic Recovery Action Plan must be utilised within this financial year and any underspend will be returned for reallocation by the Executive."
They added: "The focus of the Minister and the Department is to recover and regrow the economy following the pandemic; helping families by ensuring they have a secure job and that those industries hit particularly hard over the past eighteen months have the support they need."