Shocking figures show 70% of people in Northern Ireland cut back on food to pay energy bills
More than seven out of 10 people in Northern Ireland have been deprived of basic essentials such as food due to rising energy bills, exclusive new research has found.
It also emerged that eight out of 10 struggle to adequately heat their homes, while almost everyone worries about being able to pay the bills.
Furthermore, the comprehensive study showed that, when it is cold, almost four out of 10 local people use less heating than they would like.
The shock findings come ahead of a major fuel poverty conference today, which is aimed at tackling the deepening crisis.
It has been prompted by ongoing energy price increases and the revelation that Northern Ireland has more fuel poor homes than anywhere else in the UK – or Western Europe.
The Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition (NIFPC), which is behind the 'Running On Empty' conference, claimed that one in four householders can't afford to keep warm at a reasonable cost.
Indeed, of the four UK nations Northern Ireland (42%) has the greatest proportion of fuel poor households, followed by Wales (29%), Scotland (25%) and England (15%), according to the Fuel Poverty Statistics Report 2013.
Chair of the NIFPC, Pat Austin, said that although the statistics are bad, the real-life stories make for shameful reading.
"I've heard of people putting children to bed and their lips were blue because they were so cold," said Ms Austin.
"In other cases families have been forced to have picnics in shopping centre to keep warm, while some people visit relatives at mealtimes to save money on energy it takes cooking food."
Ms Austin said the NIFPC has called together its 160 members to develop a "reinvigorated plan of attack".
"Thousands of Northern Ireland households are facing unmanageable choices about where to spend their limited income and a brutal set of market conditions mean that the time has come for a reinvigorated approach to tackling fuel poverty," she said.
"Energy prices are rarely far from the news in Great Britain, and yet Northern Ireland is in a deepening energy and fuel poverty crisis.
"With 42% of households in Northern Ireland spending more than a tenth of their income on energy, compared to 15% in England, we have the highest level of fuel poverty in Western Europe.
"The most striking Government commitment that fuel poverty would be eradicated in vulnerable households by 2010 has passed and not been delivered. Furthermore, the commitment to eradicate fuel poverty in all households by 2016 will not be met without a radical rethink."
The key findings of the new research on fuel poverty, commissioned by NIFPC and carried out by the independent market company LucidTalk*, will be presented at today's all-day seminar at Belfast's Park Avenue Hotel.
It found that 71% of those surveyed strongly agreed or agreed that paying for energy meant they sometimes could not afford to buy other essentials, or had to buy fewer.
The poll also discovered that 82% found it difficult or very difficult to heat their homes to a comfortable temperature.
And 37% of respondents said that they always or sometimes have their heating on lower or less often than they would like when it is cold.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, whose department is responsible for vulnerable households and domestic energy efficiency, told the Belfast Telegraph he was worried about the grim revelations.
"Given the Energy Regulator recently commented that the era of high energy prices is going to be with us for considerable time, this is an issue of concern for all of us," said Mr McCausland.
Households which are fuel poor are defined as those which must spend more than 10% of their income on heating their home to an adequate standard of warmth.
Falling incomes, rising energy costs and lack of energy efficiency all contribute to fuel poverty which, in turn, distorts normal spending habits.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported a trade-off in food versus fuel spending among the poorest households whereby people reduce grocery spending.
In Northern Ireland, the fuel poverty problem is exacerbated by the fact that 99% of home heating depends on imported oil – the most expensive fuel.
A household is said to be fuel poor if it needs to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to maintain satisfactory heat, which means 21C for the main living area, and 18C for other rooms. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported in 2011 that the poorest tenth of households spent more than a fifth of their budget on fuel. A rise in fuel spending led to a big cut in spending on food.
Oil prices down, but we're still paying plenty
The cost of home heating oil has fallen by 5% compared to this time last year, although prices are likely to increase in the coming weeks.
Householders are currently paying more than £500 for a tankful of 900 litres – down £100 from levels during the 2008 peak.
Experts have noticed a new trend in the market, whereby distributors are now offering much smaller amounts (sometimes as low as 100 litres) of heating oil to help people who simply can't afford 500 litres.
And, in turn, consumers have responded to the opportunity.
"If you decide to buy smaller amounts of oil at a time it comes at a cost, because the distributor has to make more callouts," cautioned an industry source. "That means there can be a greater cost, as the pence per litre goes up, so this also drives up the annual heating bill."
Northern Ireland is the most competitive market for heating oil in the UK, say experts.
"Prices are actually around 5% lower than this time last year and if they dropped by as little as 2% more, householders here would be paying a one-year low," said an insider.
"There have been fewer spikes in cost over the last three years but that is little comfort, as prices have remained relatively high at over £500 for 900 litres – and that doesn't look set to change.
"In November 2010, prices rocketed from £400 to £500 for 900 litres and never really came down."
Political hot potato that is fuel poverty
Energy prices – and by association fuel poverty – have become a political hot potato across the UK.
In October Prime Minister David Cameron announced a plan to force all energy companies to put all of their customers on the cheapest tariffs.
Then the opposition Labour Party promised a 20-month energy bill freeze if elected at the next election, before former Prime Minister John Major weighed in to the fray and called for a "excess profits tax" (or windfall tax) on energy companies' profits.
In Northern Ireland – where there are more fuel poor homes than anywhere else in the UK – the Fuel Poverty Coalition has criticised the Executive for failing to address the problem.
But Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, whose department is responsible for vulnerable households, has pointed to several ongoing initiatives, including:
e Over £150m has been spent on the Warm Homes Scheme since 2001, which has assisted more than 117,000 households.
e The Boiler Replacement Scheme, launched in 2012, has already exceeded its first year target, with 8,700 new boilers now installed across Northern Ireland.
e Winter Fuel Payments provide financial assistance towards the cost of heating homes for all those people born on or before January 5, 1952.
Perhaps surprisingly, home heating oil, upon which 80% of local households are dependent, is cheaper here than everywhere else in the UK because of competition.
"The biggest international factors affecting the price are the price of oil on the stock market and, as oil on the stock market is priced in US dollars, the dollar/pound exchange rate," said an industry insider.
"Oil prices could be headed lower after the recent preliminary nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, which would increase supplies on the world market.
"The new-found co-operation between Iran and the west also eases tensions that pushed oil prices higher in recent years."
Diagnosed with cancer, worrying about money
A woman diagnosed with cancer has told of the tough battle her family faced while trying to pay rising fuel bills on a reduced income as she recovered.
"It was bad enough being diagnosed with two different types of cancer without having to worry about how to make ends meet," said Michelle Roe.
The 38-year-old mother-of-two had to give up her job in April 2011 as a part-time hairdresser after learning the distressing news.
But the Newtownabbey woman, who endured 14 operations, faced further hardship as a result of losing her monthly income.
"We went from two wages down to one and it meant our family income was down by £500 a month, which is a lot," she said. "I wasn't entitled to any benefits because I was only recently back to work and I only got sick pay of £74 a week for six months.
"It was a huge difference to make up. I was out of work but the bills went up because the heating was on all the time as I was ill.
"When I got home from hospital that April the snow was on the ground and it was freezing and the electricity was on all the time too, so the bills were going up but the wages had come down."
Michelle said it was emotionally, as well as physically, draining to get through those tough times.
Although she's recovering well, Michelle is still unable to work.
"Unfortunately the bills are still high but we've learned to cut down and make more sensible choices with money. There are few luxuries," she added.