Fuel poverty may cause thousands of deaths


THE INABILITY to pay for home heating could be contributing to up to 2,000 winter deaths across Ireland a year, an Energy Action conference on fuel poverty has heard.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 “excess winter deaths” – the number of additional deaths compared to other times of the year – occurred on the island of Ireland during winter 2009/2010.

That number is expected to have increased following the harsh winter conditions in 2010/2011, with older people most likely to be affected, according to Age Action Ireland.

While 90 per cent of older people owned their own homes, they were asset rich and cash poor, leaving them at a high risk of fuel poverty, said Emer Begley of Age Action Ireland.

“Many households affected by fuel poverty are characterised by older people living alone, often widowed, enduring low housing standards, low income and in buildings with low occupancy rates.”

Newer payment methods, such as online banking or direct debits, could cause difficulties for older people, Ms Begley said. While income supports for buying fuel did exist they were not an adequate alternative for ensuring that people experiencing fuel poverty were accommodated in energy efficient homes, she said.

“Older people are debt averse and tend to respond to fuel poverty by rationing energy use, as they do other household expenditure, leading to an enhanced health risk. Nevertheless many find themselves sliding into debt.”

University of Ulster research indicated that deaths from cold-related illnesses could be underestimated by as much as 25 per cent.

Christine Liddell, professor of psychology at the university, said tackling fuel poverty would significantly improve people’s health.

“There is a growing consensus amongst researchers that the impact of fuel poverty on adult mental health and the health of infants, children and teenagers is underestimated ... Research suggests that for every euro spent on tackling fuel poverty 42 cent is saved on healthcare alone.”

Older people were less likely to take advantage of the liberalisation of energy markets, an Oxford University climate change academic told the conference.

“People who don’t switch to lower tariffs tend to be the elderly. They end up subsidising those who do switch by continuing to pay the higher tariffs,” Dr Brenda Boardman said. The elderly also tended to be the people who “don’t self-refer” themselves to agencies that can help them and who fail to take up benefits they are entitled to.

She said free insulation schemes should no longer be supported as it was the better-off who tended to benefit most from such initiatives. We also needed to look at releasing equity to help pay for insulation measures.

Broadcaster Duncan Stewart told the conference that revenue raised from the carbon tax should be used to tackle fuel poverty.

“While the carbon tax is in all our long-term interests it is important to ringfence some of the revenue to ensure it is used to help those in fuel poverty. Otherwise there is a danger that it can operate, unintentionally, as a regressive tax, penalising those who can least afford to pay.”