3 November 2013 Edition
The cold reality of fuel poverty
Older people tend to have lower fixed incomes and as a result they spend a disproportionate amount on essentials such as fuel and food
THE scourge of fuel poverty continues to affect all levels of society, particularly the old and infirm.
From 2001 to 2011, around 2,000 older people died from cold-related illnesses. Many of these deaths were and are preventable if the causes are given priority and tackled in a serious manner.
The main causes of fuel poverty are:
- Low household income;
- Fuel costs;
- Energy efficiency;
- Thermal quality of the home and the efficiency of the heating system.
Compared to places like Britain, the Six Counties have very high levels of fuel poverty with 34% of households in fuel poverty.
In my own constituency of Newry/Armagh, 39.2% of households are in fuel poverty. Various reasons have been given as to the high level of fuel poverty. For example, we have a cold climate leading to a greater heating requirement, a more dispersed population, a larger proportion of the population living in the rural areas, and higher gas and electricity costs because we have no indigenous fuels. Up to 70% of social housing homes here rely on oil heating, which is increasingly expensive. And a lower income level makes it more difficult to afford fuel, particularly for older people and pensioners.
The reality of all of this is that fuel poverty can damage people’s quality of life and health. The likelihood of ill-health is increased by cold homes. Illnesses such as influenza, heart disease and strokes are exacerbated by the cold. Cold houses can also promote the growth of fungi and household dust mites. People with respiratory illnesses are put increasingly at risk. The reality is that people have to make stark choices about household essentials.
• Older people and people with disabilities or long-term illnesses are particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty
This can lead to poor diet and withdrawal from the community with little or no money left to socialise with family and friends.
The risks associated with fuel poverty can apply to any individual but it is accepted that older people, people with disabilities or long-term illnesses are particularly vulnerable. Research has shown that the older population has been hardest hit by the recession. Older people tend to have lower fixed incomes and as a result they spend a disproportionate amount on essentials such as fuel and food.
At the Assembly, the Department of Social Development’s committee (chaired by Alex Maskey) has initiated a report which requires all the Government departments to take responsibility for and to act on the continuing problem of fuel poverty.
Energy companies need to play a significant role in alleviating fuel poverty and look at introducing social tariffs for vulnerable customers. Innovative measures are needed if we are, as a supposedly civilised society, going to fight the continuing scourge that is fuel poverty.
In recent times I have been told of a cancer patient who had to burn old shoes and items of clothing to heat her home as she was unable to afford fuel. This is a sad indictment on the society in which we live in the 21st century.
In simple terms, fuel poverty is poverty.