IT’S cold. It’s January. Covid is still hanging around like an irritating guest over-staying his welcome at a New Year’s Eve party (remember those?). And many of us are skint.
So, any scrap of good news at present is bound to be leapt upon and devoured hungrily by the masses.
And so it should be with the Electricity Costs Emergency Benefit Scheme.
Don’t be put off by the un-snappy title. This is essentially a €100 give-away by the Government, announced last month, to help us cope with the soaring cost of energy as our next bills begin to drop in the coming weeks.
After more than 35 energy price hike announcements by all the suppliers in the Irish market over the course of 2021, consumers were facing a nasty surplus on their winter bills, just at the time when our bank accounts are at their most threadbare.
So the Government is handing €100 each to all two million-plus domestic electricity account holders, to help reduce the impact.
It sounds like a win-win: A handy bail-out for hard-pressed consumers, taking some of the sting out of the dreaded first power bills of winter, while the Government gets our applause for acting so quickly to assuage the pain.
The scheme is expected to cost around €210 million, so perhaps the only person who ought to be objecting to it is Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.
But, at the risk of coming over all Scrooge-like when the old man has just been put in his box again for another year, I wish to raise my hand and declare my own objection to what on the surface seems like a good news story.
While I’m indeed grateful for this timely windfall, I can’t help thinking that the Government has missed a trick here.
Yes, it was right to fund this €100-a-household bail-out, but there could have been a better way to distribute it, which would have made it a win-win-win.
A win for the consumer, a win for the Government - and a win for local businesses too.
You see, this €100 giveaway will only apply to domestic customers and will not apply to commercial premises - the very businesses which are facing an incredibly tough time during Covid.
And the Government could have fixed this anomaly by altering the terms and conditions on their scheme, to the benefit of our hard-up businesses.
Under the present plan, which will probably start taking effect in early February once legislation is passed, that €210 million of taxpayers’ cash will be handed over to ESB Networks, who will then make the €100 payments to individual energy suppliers on our behalf.
The reduction in bills will be automatic, so households don’t need to apply for it.
But hang on. What if that €100 was instead handed over to each household in the form of, let’s call it, for argument’s sake, a Spend Local card? This would still represent a bail-out on energy costs, and indeed, people could have the option of doing just that and sending their windfall straight to their electricity provider.
But other people could be left with the option of using their Spend Local card to funnel money into local businesses who pay business rates in their locality.
Think of the fillip that could give to so many struggling local businesses; the bones of €210 million bulging in their coffers.
Ah, I hear you say, a fine idea, but could our Government be relied upon to set up such a fancy dan scheme at short notice?
The answer is yes - they only have to copy a scheme tried, tested, and carried out recently by our friends in the North, and hailed as a huge success.
Before Christmas, the Stormont Assembly set up a pre-paid Spend Local card scheme (see where I got my name for it from?!)
This entitled everyone aged 18 and above in Northern Ireland to a £100 ‘voucher’ to spend in shops in the North, and was aimed at encouraging people back to high streets to support local business during the pandemic.
More than 1.43 million people applied for the scheme and they had up to December 14 to spend their cash. These cards pumped tens of millions of pounds into the North’s economy and breathed life into the high streets.
Recipients were allowed to spend their money on goods and services in any shop in the North that had a card payment machine, and it could not be spent online or for gambling, or on legal services like parking tickets.
To protect further against misuse, the cards were electronically coded to only recognise payment machines registered by businesses with a Northern Ireland postcode. Nor could they be used to withdraw cash.
The scheme has been hailed as a great success, and had echoes of a similar project in the UK in 2020, when a so-called ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme handed Britons discounted meals during the month of August, in an attempt to restart the economy after the lockdowns.
That scheme attracted criticism in some quarters for encouraging people to go out and mix in public, but the Northern Ireland scheme involved transactions being done within social distancing guidelines in shops.
The Stormont scheme involved paying all over 18s, rather than just households, but aside from that little tweak, it could easily be introduced in the Republic.
We could also include a further option, whereby households who don’t feel they need any hand-outs can direct their money towards a charity of their choosing - or even hand the money back to the Exchequer.
So, how did the Spend Local scheme go down in the North?
A friend there, who is both a business owner and consumer, told me: “We loved it! Everyone in my family used the money locally and lots of shops offered incentives if you used your card with them.
“You could also buy coal or oil with it, as well as groceries.
“Or, if you felt you didn’t need it, you could just donate it, or not apply for it.
“A friend of mine has a shop and he said it really helped bring people in and he did well from it.”
The North’s Economy Minister Gordon Lyons hailed the Spend Local Scheme as “a massive success”, which had “achieved what it set out to do”.
Shop visits in Northern Ireland were 10% higher than the UK average in November on the back of it.
A scheme with such wide-ranging benefits... sure, it’ll never catch on down here.