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Author: News Letter -
Published on 26 August 2011 08:30 AM

The SDLP has called for the Stormont executive to be recalled from its extended summer holiday to discuss the 18.6 per cent hike in electricity prices by Northern Ireland’s main power supplier.

South Belfast MLA Alasdair McDonnell said the executive needed to be recalled “urgently” to discuss the issue.

Mr McDonnell, who is also an MP, said the executive “cannot just sit back and accept this swell in the cost of electricity”.

“The SDLP is calling for an emergency meeting of the executive to radically review our energy management structures and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure less expensive prices,” he said.

The Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition, an umbrella group of welfare charities, called on the executive to examine how it could support those struggling to pay their energy bills.

Age NI, a charity working with older people, called for “strong political leadership to support vulnerable older people” in light of the hike.

Yesterday there was no response from the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers when asked about the calls to recall the executive.

However, Power NI (formerly NIE), the company which announced the increase on Wednesday, said it had invited several MLAs to discuss the issue prior to the news breaking, but only SDLP MLA Alban Maginness had taken up its offer.

A Power NI spokeswoman said: “Alban Maginness MLA very kindly took a briefing from Power NI representatives on the run-up to this pricing announcement in his role as chair of the enterprise, trade and investment committee.

“Mr Maginness took a very close interest in the issues discussed and it was a very constructive meeting.

“An invitation for a similar meeting was also issued to other MLAs but unfortunately they did not take place.”

The company declined to name the other MLAs who it invited to discuss the price hike but it is understood that only a handful who had expressed an interest in energy issues were invited.

Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt also questioned why Stormont was still on holiday – the assembly is not due back until the middle of next month.

“I do think it is odd that we take a 10-week break with the prospect of a double-dip recession, 18.6 per cent hike in electricity prices, unemployment figures going the wrong way compared to the rest of the UK, one in four young people with no jobs — why are we not discussing these things?” he said.

The Strangford MLA wants to question the power firm about where the liability for the shortfall in NIE’s pension lies and whether that meant consumers would be paying for failures by the company.

He said: “If the size of the pension pot was unavoidably small, then it rests with the consumer but if it was avoidable then it rests with NIE – I want to know where the liability lies.

“This rise is also being put down to the cost of raw materials – wholesale gas. What about ESB who own the network – are they about to cry foul and ask for a lot more money which will give us another hike?

“If we can’t stop the price rising then we can help people to not have to use so much, particularly the 50 per cent of households now in fuel poverty. So what are we doing about energy efficiency measures?”

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said that for some people the hike will mean that they “potentially have to make life or death decisions” about whether to heat their homes.

The East Antrim representative said: “It is very important that we look at radical solutions to the energy question and we should be exploring how we can increase the use of renewable energy and employ home insulation schemes to help people keep their energy bills as low as possible.”

Sinn Fein, which jointly leads the executive with the DUP, said it wanted to “urge the executive to explore ways of reducing the effects of recent energy price increases”.

However, Power NI dismissed as “wrong” a claim by TUV MLA Jim Allister that the recent take-over of NIE’s electricity network by southern company ESB was part of the reason for the charges hike.

Power NI said that it is part of the Viridian Group and has no link to ESB, which only purchased the network from Viridian.

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For more information: Call Age NI Advice: 0808 808 7575