People living in Northern Ireland suffer some of the worst poverty in western Europe, a consumer watchdog report has revealed.
The Price of Being Poor, released yesterday by the Consumer Council, revealed that those who earn the least are forced to pay more for everyday goods.
The document offers a series of recommendations designed to tackle spiralling costs that hit people struggling to cope in the current economic climate.
And while consumers living in Northern Ireland are forced to pay more for essential goods such as fuel, insurance, transport and heating oil, problems are compounded for working people who receive £39 less in average weekly earnings than people living in England, Scotland or Wales.
The report was launched by junior ministers in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Martina Anderson and Jonathan Bell, who have pledged to tackle poverty.
It reveals that one of the country's biggest problems is fuel poverty - of which Northern Ireland has some of the highest rates in western Europe.
It is estimated the number of households affected has jumped to 300,000 (44%) in recent years.
Consumer Council chiefs believe that figure may even have risen to over 50% this year and claim a lack of heating fuel could have led to the deaths of up to 950 people, mostly elderly, last winter.
Chief executive of the watchdog Antoinette McKeown said she was determined the report would not be allowed to gather dust.
She said: "It is scandalous that those least able to pay are receiving the worst deals.
"The Price of Being Poor report emphasises the vicious cycle between poverty and debt. This needs to be addressed immediately - we all have a responsibility to make sure no extra disadvantage is placed on those already struggling."
Martina Anderson echoed the sentiments, insisting that "real effort and commitment" is necessary to tackle the problems.
And Jonathan Bell added that poverty must be eradicated and that it is "essential to mitigate against the pain consumers are continuing to face".
* An estimated 50% of households here suffer fuel poverty.
- Averages wages in Northern Ireland are £357.60 - £39 a week less than UK average.
- The cost of filling a car with diesel and petrol jumped by around £200 between May 2010 & May 2011.
- 72% of survey respondents on low incomes have no life insurance.
- The Consumer Council is keen to hear the public’s views and experiences. Visit www.consumercouncil.org.uk or call 028 9067 2488.
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