Mr Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman and member of the Stormont Culture and Agriculture Committees, has appealed directly to First Minister Peter Robinson to ensure there is sufficient cash for the much-needed social protection fund.
Assemblyman Swann, who is also North Antrim UUP Chairman, warned that if funding was not guaranteed for social protection, many families could find themselves in a poverty trap, especially when trying to pay for fuel to heat homes.
Mr Swann had asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline their plans for the social protection fund for the remainder of the current budget period.
In his response to Mr Swann, First Minister Robinson said: “The Executive established a social protection fund (SPF) to assist those most in need in the wider community.
“This year we agreed to prioritise fuel poverty through the fund, and we committed the full £20 million budget to a winter fuel poverty payment scheme. That is being progressed by the Department for Social Development and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) under the Financial Assistance Act (Northern Ireland) 2009.
“Through the scheme, a one-off payment of £75 will be made to persons in receipt of income-based means-tested benefits, including income support, income-related employment and support allowance and income-based jobseeker’s allowance.
“Pension credit recipients and people in receipt of cancer treatment in line with criteria determined by DHSSPS are receiving one-off payments of £100.
“Those entitled should begin to receive payments in the coming weeks, with the majority of payments being made by the end of this month.
“Although funding for the programme was secured for only this financial year, we are committed as an Executive to securing moneys for future SPF programmes during the remainder of the current Budget period. We will seek to identify revenue streams during budgetary exercises.
“With that in mind, our officials will continue their discussions with departmental colleagues to develop proposals that will form the basis of the future social protection fund spend programme,” said Mr Robinson.
Mr Swann responded: “Does he accept that there was a serious deficiency in the first round of the social protection fund, given that families with disabled children were not included?”
The First Minister then told Mr Swann: “It might be worth pointing out that, when we look at criteria, they have to be criteria that fall within the overall funding available.
“Even with the criteria that we have set on this occasion, when we have had a longer period to prepare, we have exceeded the £20 million. Indeed, we were successful during the January monitoring round in getting sufficient funding, and I think that we have spent about £22·5 million on the SPF this year.
“There are many areas of society that would undoubtedly benefit from further funding being made available to them.
“However, as we look to the fund in the long term, we will, I think, see that that there is perhaps a view that simply doling out money is not the best way, and certainly not the only way, of assisting those who are most vulnerable and in the greatest need.
“We will perhaps look at more holistic ways of giving assistance to the section of the community that needs it most,” First Minister Robinson told Assemblyman Swann.