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Rise in Northern Ireland elderly dying from cold

The number of older people in Northern Ireland dying from the cold reached its highest level for almost a decade last winter, it was revealed today.

There were 873 deaths partly because of steep rises in the cost of fuel and campaigners called for substantial measures to help the elderly pay heating costs.

Age Concern warned many vulnerable people would go without help again this winter unless urgent action was taken.

Chief executive Anne O'Reilly said: "This is a shocking and avoidable situation."

According to Age Concern there was a 60% increase in the death toll last winter compared to 2007/08. It was the worst year since 2000 for excess winter deaths.

Home energy bills have fallen since then. Phoenix Gas has announced a 19% reduction in prices.

However domestic UK energy bills could rise by 60% by 2016 in a worst-case scenario identified by the energy regulator Ofgem.

Ms O'Reilly said the £150 winter fuel payment to those on pension credit was a sticking plaster.

"The Assembly must introduce more substantial, strategic measures," she added.

She said the severe lack of funding to the Warm Home Schemes should be urgently reviewed to avoid a repeat of last year when it ran out of money half way through the year.

"There is also an urgent need for Northern Ireland to implement a social tariff for fuel costs as is already offered in Great Britain," she said.

On September 29 the Assembly debated the step and urged consideration of a range of options to assist people most vulnerable to fuel poverty.

Ms O'Reilly said words needed to be matched by actions.

"Many of the most vulnerable older people will go unassisted again this winter unless urgent and decisive action is taken," she added.

Simon Hamilton chairs the Assembly's Social Development Committee.

"The committee wants to see any potential tragedies averted by whatever actions can be taken by the Department," he said.

The DUP MLA said £20 million had been cleared to provide better heating for the vulnerable.

"We need to see that making a real difference to people's homes as quickly as possible," he said.

He added: "The money is there to do the work and it can improve the heating standard and efficiency of heating within thousands of homes making a real difference."

A spokesman for the DSD said they shared the concerns.

Since 2001 over £100 million has been spent improving the energy efficiency and insulation of over 70,000 vulnerable households in Northern Ireland.

"Despite pressures on the budget during 2008/09, over £20 million was spent on Warm Homes with nearly 11,000 households benefiting, which exceeded the target of 9,000," he said.

"This year the budget for tackling fuel poverty has been increased to £21 million.

"A new Warm Homes Scheme was launched in July this year and at the end of September scheme managers had received over 5,500 referrals. This work is taking place and making a real difference to people's homes."

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