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Pensioners march on Stormont

By Victoria O'Hara

Hundreds of pensioners from across Northern Ireland facing financial crisis today braved the cold for a march on Stormont to urge the Executive to put political differences aside and help elderly people who can’t afford to heat their home and eat.

The demands for urgent government action comes as shocking figures reveal Northern Ireland householders have been hit by spiralling costs of living including a massive 52% hike in electricity in the last year.

Heating oil prices have also jumped by 23% and food by 14% during the last 12 months — and campaigners say senior citizens are among the worst financially affected.

The Age Sector Platform, which has organised today’s ‘Can’t Heat or Eat’ rally with Age Concern and Help the Aged, says unless drastic action is taken by the Executive to address the escalating cost of living, older people are facing a “crisis situation”.

New figures by the Consumer Council show people are now paying £200 more for electricity than they did in November 2007, £153 more for heating oil (now costing nearly £400 for 900 litres) and £538 more for food.

And campaigners warn that, with 32% of pensioners in Northern Ireland solely reliant on state benefits with no other source of income, more older people are facing major financial problems this winter.

From October 1 electricity tariffs were raised by a massive 33.3% while Phoenix Natural Gas said its bills were being ratcheted up by 19.2%.

The hikes mean that the average annual domestic NIE bill jumped from £439 to £585, while the average Phoenix household rises from £577 to £689.

However wholesale gas costs have fallen 33%, while crude oil — which affects gas prices — last Thursday dropped to just $59 a barrel. During the summer it peaked at $147.

The wholesale gas market closely follows moves in world oil prices. However energy prices in Northern Ireland have yet to drop.

An independent report into the hike in electricity prices is set to be published soon by former regulator Douglas McIldoon while the Utility Regulator announced in October it would be reviewing gas prices.

The Age Sector Platform has now called on energy companies, supermarkets and the Stormont Executive to help prevent thousands of pensioners sinking into poverty.

Bill Carson, chairman of the Age Sector Platform, said drastic action is needed now.

“All of these increases have literally come together at the worst time,” he said.

“In the old days you would say you had a choice whether you could heat or eat, now we are saying ‘Can’t Heat or Eat’ because it is so bad. Older people would spend about 40% of their pension feeding and heating themselves.

“And 28% of pensioners in Northern Ireland are surviving below the poverty line and these bills are just making it a critical time for thousands of older people.”

He added: “What people are telling us is giving us a frightening picture of what is going on in Northern Ireland.

Hundreds of pensioners from across Northern Ireland facing financial crisis today braved the cold for a march on Stormont to urge the Executive to put political differences aside and help elderly people who can’t afford to heat their home and eat.

Belfast Telegraph

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