Citizens Advice Reports On Desparate Picture of Fuel Poverty – A Cold House For Everyone?
A recent report by the Northern Ireland Association of Citizen Advice Bureaux (NIACAB) by Chief Executive Derek Alcorn asked the question – “A Cold House for Everyone?”
The most recent estimate of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is 44% of households, but there has been speculation that it may now exceed 50%.
There is growing concern touching on alarm as the next cold winter spell nudges it way closer.
The new Citizens Advice survey shows a desperate picture of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland – and the rural areas and disabled feature strongly in this impending crisis.
A new report on fuel poverty by Citizens Advice has revealed an increasing picture of desperation, particularly among the most vulnerable. The findings are based on a survey of 386 CAB clients who came in for advice in February and March 2011.
The findings reveal that
* One in two CAB clients surveyed had experienced difficulty paying their heating bills, and 77% had been forced to ration the heat they use.
* Amongst elderly CAB clients, 30% have had to make the choice between heating and other essential items such as food. Amongst disabled respondents, this increases to 59%
* Around one in ten CAB clients have had to borrow from relatives and friends or charities to pay for heating bills at some point.
* 12% of CAB clients surveyed have been forced to borrow from the Social Fund to pay for fuel, with an average fuel debt of over £300. Around 49% of those disabled or too sick to work have had to borrow from the Social Fund.
* A significant number of people attribute their problems to poor insulation and heating systems, with 49% of CAB clients claiming they would benefit from the provision of energy efficiency advice.
Citizens Advice Chief Executive Derek Alcorn said, “This new report and survey underlines the growing plight of many households in Northern Ireland, particularly those with disability and those living in rural areas. With fuel poverty fast approaching 50% of households as energy companies announce further price increases, the problem is becoming severe.
“Particularly concerning are the problems that disabled people face when trying to heat their homes. Many people with disabilities, such as those with cancer or muscular diseases, have a much greater need for heat but also frequently have lower incomes if they rely on benefits. There is very little extra support for people in these circumstances as they cannot receive the Winter Fuel Payment if they are under 60.”
The NIACAB report makes a number of recommendations including the following:
1. Assembly scrutiny to ensure that the Warm Homes budget is spent to plan.
2. Investigation of the feasibility of extending energy brokerage schemes beyond the social housing sector.
3. Extend energy brokerage into heating oil through oil clubs.
4. Open a dialogue with oil suppliers to consider minimum order problems.
5. Ensure oil stamp and payment schemes apply across Northern Ireland.
6. The Northern Ireland Utility Regulator should examine the prospects of a good practice code similar to ‘Preventing Debt and Disconnection’ and whether it is applicable in Northern Ireland.
7. Investigation as to whether a Kirklees or area-based approach could be used to tackle low energy efficiency and lower Warm Homes uptake in isolated rural areas.
8. Examining whether energy efficiency ratings could be increased through a statutory requirement to meet a minimum standard before letting or re-letting a property.
9. Promotion of the Landlords Energy Savings Allowance.
Here’s What The CAB Clients Said – Some Case Studies
A disabled client aged 87, lives on her own and has recently received a grant for a new oil central heating system. Despite the Winter Fuel and Cold Weather payments, her income is still too low to pay for heating for the whole winter and she has been forced to keep her house warm with just one electric heater. The CAB adviser has examined what other benefits the client may be entitled to in order to boost her income to afford heating oil.
Another client is a single mother and works part-time. Despite this, her income is too small to pay for the minimum order of heating oil, and her children are too old and her income not low enough to enable her to qualify for Cold Weather Payments. As a consequence of this, she must buy emergency oil heating drums when she can afford them, which means that she is paying more per unit of heating oil than if she could afford larger quantities and often goes without heat.
And another client works full-time and has three young children. She is unable to afford coal or oil in the extended winter period and is under further pressure as her children are vulnerable to health problems. As she works full-time she cannot qualify for any help paying these bills despite having young children and a low income.
These are examples of ordinary people falling into the fuel poverty trap. An estimated 50% plus of the Northern Ireland population are affected.
Will this winter bring emergency schemes such as heated local halls into play so people can stay in them safe and healthy? It will be a difficult time ahead and we need to keep an eye on the elderly especially and the vulnerable.
Background to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
Citizens Advice is the largest advice charity in Northern Ireland working against poverty, meeting the information and advice needs of some 279,000 people per year. 56% of these queries relate to social security benefits. This service is an independent charity that helps people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more information see www.citizensadvice.co.uk.
The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.