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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 28, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    Freezing to death? The Government has its ear muffs on

    Laura Slattery

    You may have noticed it’s a little cold outside. And in. Sub-zero temperatures are sending the country into a blue freeze as severe as our economic stasis. But if you’re feeling it, then you are, by comparison, lucky. In the advanced stages of hypothermia, its victims become unaware of how cold their bodies are. The shivering stops.

    Age Action, which has made a special plea to people to look out for their elderly neighbours during this wintry spell, estimates that 2,000 older people die each winter from cold-related illnesses. These are deaths that could be avoided were they not living in fuel poverty – typically defined as spending more than 10 per cent of your income on fuel needs (including a satisfactory heating regime). It’s three years now since an Institute of Public Health report found that Ireland has one of the highest rates of excess winter mortality in Europe. Fuel poverty, the institute said, was “unacceptably high” in Ireland, with no systematic monitoring.

    Age Action’s Eamon Timmins, who calls Ireland’s chilling record in this area “a matter of national shame”, was duly unimpressed by the Four-Year Plan’s announcement of increased carbon taxes on fuel. “The Government cannot add to [the] suffering by further intervening to increase the price of energy, without taking some action to protect these people,” he said. But it seems they can. In fact, Government policy whenever anyone raises the issue of fuel poverty is to put its ear muffs on and disappear somewhere snug.

    When carbon taxes were first introduced in the 2010 budget, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan and Minister for the Environment John Gormley claimed the funds would be used in part to alleviate fuel poverty through a compensation voucher scheme. Now, as of last Wednesday, the carbon tax is officially designed to contribute €330 million to the “overall correction”. Earlier this month, Minister for Social Protection Eamon Ó Cuív ruled out introducing the voucher scheme, giving the excuse that “insulation, insulation, insulation” was the more efficient long-term approach. He also lamented that there was too much of an administrative burden associated with such a scheme.

    Indeed, keeping people alive can be such a chore.

    The least administratively burdensome way to provide what the Commission on Taxation called “adequate safeguards” to prevent fuel poverty would be to increase the fuel allowance. But even if this were to happen in next week’s Budget, it wouldn’t immediately heat up the nation. As Labour spokeswoman Róisín Shortall has pointed out, “working poor” families don’t qualify for the payment because they’re not in the social welfare loop. As a result, they’re also left out of the warmer homes’ scheme favoured by Ó Cuív, unless they make a special case. Meanwhile, Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan told the Dáil in October that this scheme is due to make structural improvements to 22,500 low-income homes by the end of 2010. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that the number of households living in persistent fuel poverty is almost three times that amount at 60,000, with a further 160,000 suffering from it intermittently.

    Two years ago, the boss of British energy giant Centrica made a mask-slipping gaffe when he advised customers struggling with rising heating bills to lower their thermostats and endure a “two jumpers instead of one” winter. That now seems like a relatively sensible plan, given this Government’s approach is to say one jumper will be just fine, because we’ll be along with a lagging jacket later.

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