SDLP to put forward emergency legislation for cost of living relief

An attempt to pass “emergency” legislation to allow £300 million in unspent money to be used to tackle the cost of living crisis is to be put forward at the Assembly today.

This comes after the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter his party’s proposal to offer a discount to 640,000 households due to receive rate bills through their doors next month – a move that would amount to around £350 million worth of financial assistance – had been rejected during a meeting of party leaders last week.

Sir Jeffrey and the DUP insist that the £300m is “over and above” the budget and is not legally tied to the Executive’s restoration, and can therefore be allocated.

Meanwhile, the SDLP is seeking permission today from the speaker’s office to introduce a bill that would allow £300 million to be spent despite the absence of a first and deputy first minister.

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan

The latest move comes amid the impasse over the planned Stormont budget, following the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan as part of a DUP protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has insisted a budget cannot be struck without an Executive in place, meaning an additional £300 million allocated to the administration for the coming financial year cannot be accessed.

While Mr Givan’s resignation, and the subsequent forced removal of his Sinn Fein counterpart Michelle O’Neill from the deputy first minister’s post, means there is no Executive in place existing legislation has continued to be passed and the ministers of health, education, justice, finance, economy and agriculture have all remained in post.

The SDLP’s draft bill would grant the authority to remaining ministers to use powers to make payments in emergency circumstances, even in the absence of the first and deputy first ministers.

The SDLP proposal will be put forward by the Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan today.

“Our communities are crying out for support to deal with the rising cost of everything from food to fuel,” Mr Durkan said.

“Energy bills are going up by the week and petrol prices by the day. People are looking to us to step in and help them and we have an obligation to do everything in our power to protect people from the worst aspects of this crisis.

“We are in a very serious situation and we need political leadership to get us through it.”

He continued: “We have £300m sitting there doing nothing because there is no Executive. The easiest way to resolve this is for the DUP to nominate a first minister to restore the Executive but with time ticking down we certainly can’t bank on that. We need to use all routes open to us to help people now.

“In the absence of an Executive the SDLP has drafted an emergency bill to allow for emergency financial support to be provided to people who are currently struggling with rising costs.

“The bill as drafted allows for powers under the Financial Assistance Act (Northern Ireland) 2009 to be exercised by ministers, in the absence of a first or deputy first minister, with Assembly authority for prescribed emergency payments.

“It does not and cannot substitute the need for a budget and the need for the Executive to be formed to allow for a budget.”