Belfast Telegraph

Why Stormont should feel the heat over fuel poverty

By Lisa Smyth

The Belfast Telegraph today declares war on fuel poverty — which kills 1,000 people in Northern Ireland every winter and leaves almost half of households struggling to stay warm.

With temperatures beginning to drop ahead of a long and cold winter, we are calling on members of the public, church leaders, unions and business people from all sections of the community to unite and send a clear message to Stormont — act now to freeze out fuel poverty.

Antoinette McKeown, the chief executive of the Consumer Council — the lead organisation of the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition, said: “It is not just those on benefits who are subject to fuel poverty.

“Twenty-nine per cent of people in fuel poverty actually work and they are getting no benefits and no support. We were concerned in 2006 when fuel poverty levels jumped up to 34%. That was a third of households in Northern Ireland and yet last week we heard that, some four years later, that has jumped a further whopping 10% to 44%.

“This means almost one in two households in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes and that just isn’t acceptable in the 21st century. It has a very real impact on the quality of people’s lives and, indeed, it has an impact on life itself with 1,000 excess deaths last winter due to cold-related illnesses. It simply isn’t good enough.”

Ms McKeown said while the figures are shocking, the human suffering behind the statistics are heartbreaking and further demonstrate the need for immediate action.

She added: “It is not just older people who suffer from fuel poverty. While 49% of people in Northern Ireland who are in fuel poverty are over 60 years old, 63% of lone parents are also in fuel poverty.

“That means families with young children can’t afford to keep their homes warm. We hear examples of children wrapped up in a duvet to do their homework or lying in their bed doing their homework just so they can stay warm and concentrate. Some families have told us very clearly they have to choose between heating and eating, and given that we had one of the coldest winters on record last year, we want to make sure everyone is aware of the impact of fuel poverty. We want as many people as possible to sign up to the charter.

“We want to demonstrate to our politicians that whole swathes of Northern Ireland are saying fuel poverty is not acceptable.”

Mike Gilson, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, said: “We are delighted to be working with the Fuel Poverty Coalition to highlight this issue.

“The stories behind the figures are harrowing. They demonstrate very clearly that something has to be done. It is not acceptable that people are dying simply because they can’t afford to heat their homes. I’m confident our readers will agree and sign up to the Fuel Poverty charter.”

Ms McKeown hit out at current Government initiatives to tackle the problem, such as the Warm Homes scheme, and called for a joined-up approach to address the situation.

She said: “Tackling fuel poverty should be a priority for the Executive when it affects one in two households and when you look at the human impact of being cold and not being able to put your heat on in the depths of winter.

“We don’t accept the current strategy that has discussed the alleviation of fuel poverty but hasn’t set any targets. In a region that has the highest levels of fuel poverty in western Europe, we believe it is absolutely crazy not to set targets.

“We believe you can eradicate fuel poverty with the right strategy and we would like to see the budget already in place used more effectively and target those most in need first.”

Ms McKeown added: “We recognise it is not going to be a short-term win but if you don’t set clear outcomes and targets as to how you are going to get there and you don’t monitor those regularly, then you don’t have a hope of getting there.

“We’re very disappointed the Department for Social Development strategy has abandoned its commitment to eradicating fuel poverty and is going to use the term ‘alleviation’ without targets.”

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