Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

The children in Northern Ireland who crave warmth over new toys to play with

Almost 110,000 children in Northern Ireland — one in every four — live in relative poverty, it has emerged.

Save the Children statistics also show that one in 10 youngsters lives in a family experiencing severe financial hardship.

Indeed, the latter refers to a typical two-parent, two-child household surviving on a yearly income of less than £12,500.

The charity’s Northern Ireland boss, Fergus Cooper, said the problem has reached crisis levels and must be addressed.

“Of those households here that experience fuel poverty, just under half have children,” he said.

“These families are experiencing real hardship. The children have to do without, as the parents, who are struggling with debt, face weekly decisions about what bills they can and cannot pay. In Northern Ireland we spend more on energy, have lower earnings and suffer more from excess winter deaths than any other country in north west Europe.

“We also have a higher proportion of people on low incomes or living on benefits, which makes the problem all the more potent.”

Save the Children recently signed up to the Northern Ireland Fuel Coalition, along with 100 other groups, in order to force the Assembly to act. Research undertaken by the charity last autumn established that on average the poorest households have to pay £1,280 more for their goods and services than others.

“This is known as the poverty premium,” said Mr Cooper.

“It is caused by a number of factors, including no access to affordable credit, having to purchase goods on hire purchase with high APR, having to shop local and the inability to access discounts for utility bills.

“Many families cannot afford to order oil and instead buy heating oil by the drum, which can work out almost twice as expensive.”

Part of Save the Children’s research focused on asking children what they most wanted, according to Mr Cooper.

And, tellingly, rather than games or toys, most respondents placed a warm home at the top of their wish-lists. In reality, low income families frequently compromise the warmth of their homes to reduce their bills — despite the health implications.

“Cold and damp homes can have a huge detrimental impact on a child’s health, education and general well-being, said Mr Cooper.

“The incidence of asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases is more than twice as high in fuel poor households.”

Children from underprivileged backgrounds do less well at school, with only 29% of less well-off children achieving five good GCSEs compared to 63% of their better-off peers.

They are also more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour, according to the charity.

Many families are still living with the legacy of the Troubles.

Save the Children wants government to produce an action-plan to eradicate fuel poverty.

It also wants the introduction of social tariffs to assist households living in fuel poverty.

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