Page last updated at 21:08 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

Fuel poverty causing hundreds of deaths

Fuel poverty Chief

BBC Newsline talks to the Chief Executive of Age Concern Northern Ireland, Anne O'Reilly, about the problem of fuel poverty here.

BBC Northern Ireland Environment Correspondent Mike McKimm investigates the high rate of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

"Fuel Poverty? We only talk about it when it's very cold or oil prices go through the roof".

That was one comment made to me by one of the many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes trying to prevent a crisis becoming a disaster.

This winter has taken a particular toll on those who can't afford to heat their homes sufficiently or in some cases at all.

Some of those, particularly the elderly, don't always make it to spring. There are about 1,000 cold-related deaths in Northern Ireland in the winter. Some say it's more like 1,300.

These are known politely as "excess winter deaths". But many of them are directly related to fuel poverty. People who just can't afford to keep warm any more get ill and die because of the cold.

Northern Ireland has more winter deaths than places like Sweden or Germany where it gets really cold - a lot more. But then we have the highest number of excess winter deaths in the UK which is itself the highest in western Europe. But it seldom makes the headlines.

One of the problems is the stigma. Being fuel poor seems to be worse than just being poor. Its seems to rob people of that last glimmer of pride.

Thousands of people face fuel poverty, some face severe poverty, but few will talk openly about it. And that in turn confuses a system that isn't geared up to finding them.

Northern Ireland operates a Warm Homes scheme to help insulate and heat homes. It's similar to schemes that run in England and Wales and it has many of the same faults.

It's seen by many of the organisations and charities as being too bureaucratic and having too many rules and criteria.

Anne O'Reilly is chief executive of Age Concern in Northern Ireland. This winter has been testing their organisation to the limit when it comes to fuel poverty.

"It has a devastating effect, it causes deaths," she said.

Fuel poverty generic
The elderly are particularly affected by fuel poverty

The message she has is very blunt: "I would appeal, really appeal to the politicians to figure out a way forward on fuel poverty for once and for all. It is a scandal if we do not use the resources that we do have to greater effect."

And "scandal" is a word that's been used by Northern Ireland's politicians when referring to fuel poverty. They've called it "disgraceful" and a "scourge" in the past.

But it's not a subject that gets a lot of assembly time.

Simon Hamilton is chairman of the assembly's Social Development Committee. Fuel poverty lies mainly under its jurisdiction.

"There is some sense of shame that we have the worst figures in the whole of the UK or Europe," Mr Hamilton admits. "It's something that we should all get to grips with and talk about right throughout the year, not just in the winter time, not just when fuel prices go up."

The Department of Social Development has spent well in excess of £120m on "treating" more than 80,000 homes in Northern Ireland.

Often they were treated to loft and cavity wall insulation. Many got new heating systems. But a lot of homes get nothing, especially rural homes.

Often the people living in them don't qualify under what some see as criteria that are too restrictive. Indeed it is the criteria that is singled out by many as the key problem.

"Sometimes the principle of targeting is paralysing us all and we're spending so much money in finding the hard to reach homes, that it could be potentially seen as a waste of money," says Pat Austin, director of the National Energy Action in Northern Ireland.

They have lots of experience in this field and pioneered some of the UK schemes that are used to provide heating systems and insulation for needy homes.

The Northern Ireland Warm Homes scheme is very different to the Warm Zones scheme run by Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire.

Saddled with one of the worst fuel poverty statistics in the UK, Kirklees set about a fast track approach to the problem.

heat timer
Many people in Northern Ireland can't afford to heat their homes

In just three years they've insulated about 50,000 homes for under £20m.

And they did it for free, regardless of the home owner's financial standing. They visited all 160,000 homes in the council area in just three years.

"We couldn't have done that if we'd decided to have a means-tested bureaucratic scheme and it would probably cost more to run as well," said Mehboob Khan, leader of Kirklees Council.

"We can say it has probably saved us around 25% of the budget - 25% would have just gone into administration.

"The benefit for households is an average of £200 off their fuel bills, plus homes feel much warmer and the local economy has benefited to the tune of about £100m."

Effectively if people aren't paying for more gas or heating oil, it's money they can spend in the local shops and help the local economy.

The feeling is that something very urgent needs to be done in Northern Ireland. Rising fuel prices pull more and more families into fuel poverty every day.

It adds to the problems of young children who face the perils of respiratory diseases which could stay with them for the rest of their lives. And research suggests that there is a direct effect on the educational achievement of many young people who live in a fuel poor household.

For some the pace of the present scheme isn't fast enough.

"If we were to continue at the current rate, it would be about 30 years before we would address all the households that we need to in the Warm Homes scheme." says Antoinette McKeown, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Consumer Council.

"The Warm Home scheme eligibility criteria is much too stringent. We want to see the scheme extended to make it available to more people."

The council is calling on government to release the latest figures on fuel poverty and winter deaths here so that they and others know what they are dealing with.

The last word rests with Anne O'Reilly, who wants the current system changed.

"We really should hang our heads in shame. Its a bit like that saying, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. Lets stop it and lets do something else now," she says.

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