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18 December 2008 Edition

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A Christmas Carol - A parable for our times

Jennifer McCann

Jennifer McCann

Fuel poverty and children


WORKING at his desk, Bob Cratchit tries to keep warm by cradling a lighted candle between his hands. His clerk’s wages are insufficient to keep him warm or his family well fed and his children’s lives are destined to be blighted by poverty. It’s a vision of indifferent private profit enjoyed by the few and inadequate wages and indebtedness endured by the rest.
Adaptations of A Christmas Carol are as seasonal as holly wreaths and turkey dinners. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s spiritual journey from hard-nosed businessman to benign philanthropist has become as much a part of Christmas as the traditional mythology of Santa Claus upon which Charles Dickens grafted his tale.
Of course, in the 21st century Scrooge’s indifference to the plight of his clerk has been superseded by the corporate indifference of the privatised energy companies to the fuel poverty of many of their customers.
This year has witnessed a massive increase in the number of families whose income has become increasingly insufficient to keep them warm this winter. A household is classified as being in fuel poverty if the occupants have to spend more than 10 per cent of their income on household heating and light.

Earlier this year, Sinn Féin MLAs organised a ‘cost of living’ group to monitor and challenge the increasing cost of basic necessities, particularly rising prices of food and fuel. Sinn Féin MLA Jennifer McCann says:
“It soon became clear that high energy costs were playing a critical role in levels of poverty in the North.
“While difficulties of meeting the weekly grocery bill can be addressed by shopping more cost effectively, universally high fuel prices offer no such wriggle room. Increasingly, the most vulnerable families are being forced to choose to ‘Heat or Eat’.”
In the first nine months of 2008, domestic energy cost rose by 27 per cent. In other words, the cost of energy has become one of the most important factors in the prevalence of poverty in the Six Counties.
In the past, research into the impact of fuel poverty has understandably focused on the plight of the elderly, who continue to suffer cold-related ill-health and even death every winter. But a recent study by Save the Children has highlighted the impact of fuel poverty amongst families with children and young people. Jennifer McCann says:
“According to a recent study carried out by Save the Children, fuel poverty rates in the homes of children and young people in the North of Ireland are amongst the highest in the developed world and between two to three times higher than the rest of Ireland and within Britain.
“Latest statistics have shown that, while interventions to alleviate fuel poverty amongst the elderly have led to a fall in the rate, in the homes of children and young people it has doubled within the space of two years.
“Single-parent families in the North are particularly vulnerable, with rates of fuel poverty 30 per cent higher for lone parents in the Six Counties compared to 5 per cent in Scotland and 8 per cent in England.
“With one in four households where there are children unable to afford adequate levels of heating, it is estimated that around 84,000 families with almost 200,000 children will be cold this winter.”

The impact of fuel poverty affects children in a number of adverse ways. In homes that are under-heated, children would need to burn more calories just to stay warm but in fact consume 10 per cent less than the average household.
This suggests it is not simply a question of families prioritising ‘Heat or Eat’ but many are suffering both cold and hunger as they try to meet runaway fuel costs. Jennifer McCann explains:
“A study in New Zealand showed that improvements in home heating decreased the frequency of ill-health amongst children and the number of days children missed school dropped by 15 per cent.
“Another survey, carried out in America, showed that infants living in homes without a fuel subsidy were 30 per cent more likely to be admitted into hospital during the first three years of their lives and were 29 per cent more likely to be underweight.
“The more calories needed just to stay warm reduced the number available for growth and building of the immune system. Paediatricians have also suggested that being underweight in the early years of life could impact on the learning ability of children.”

The massive increase in fuel poverty being experienced in the North of Ireland is matched only by the huge and increasing profits enjoyed by the private energy companies. According to Save the Children, fuel prices have increased in real terms by more than 60 per cent since 2006, resulting in massive profits for energy companies.
“NI Electricity is owned by a private company, Viridian, which posted profits of more than £150m last year with a turnover of more than a billion. Phoenix Gas posted profits of almost £20m on a turnover of £99m,” says Jennifer.
“Recent price hikes in electricity and gas have been a key factor in the spread of fuel poverty. Initially, consumers were told rising domestic energy prices reflected increasing global costs. But companies have failed to pass on the recent fall in the price of oil to the household level.
“We want to see a level of corporate social responsibility from the energy corporations which continue to make massive profits while ordinary people struggle to stay warm this winter.”

In most of his novels, Charles Dickens is preoccupied with childhood poverty and A Christmas Carol is no exception. Although over-sentimentalised for modern tastes, through the character of ‘Tiny Tim’, Dickens highlights the consequences of ill-health and reduced life expectancy and places addressing childhood poverty at the heart of Scrooge’s redemption.

Sinn Féin 'cost of living' group members, Jennifer McCann and Fra McCann with Eleanor Gill from the Consumer Council 


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