Pensioners' choice: do they buy fuel or food?


Soaring prices and capped incomes mean our most vulnerable citizens will not have enough money for essential items unless the Government acts, writes EAMON TIMMINS

THE WARNING signs have been around for months. All groups working with older people, from organisations like Age Action and the Society of St Vincent de Paul, to the healthcare professionals working in communities, have seen them.

Unless the Government intervenes in a dramatic way before the autumn, it is inevitable that thousands of older people will suffer this winter.

On the one hand, fuel and food prices have soared this year. The cost of home heating oil jumped 47 per cent in the 12 months to May. Last week the ESB was granted a 17.5 per cent increase in electricity prices from August 1st, with a second increase expected to follow in January. Bord Gáis has applied to the Commission for Energy Regulation for a double-digit increase from October.

Rising fuel prices, together with the demand for fuel crops, are among the factors that have driven up the price of essential foods for older people. In the 12 months to May, the price of flour rose by 39 per cent, bread by 17 per cent, milk by 30 per cent, butter by 17 per cent and tea by 11 per cent.

On the other side of the equation, pensioners have received no significant increase in the means-tested fuel allowance over the last two years. Budget 2007 increased the payment to these poorest of pensioners by just €4, bringing it to €18 per week for the 29-week payment period. Budget 2008 left the fuel allowance unchanged, but extended the payment period by a week - the equivalent of a 60 cent increase per week for the 30 weeks.

Research by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice found that the weekly spend on light and heat by pensioners increased from €32 a week in 2006 to €42.37 in 2008 - a rise of 32 per cent. The fuel allowance currently covers just 42 per cent of the cost of fuel for pensioners during the 30-week period it is paid. Over 52 weeks it covers just 24 per cent of a pensioner's fuel bill.

It does not take an expert to realise that faced with a capped income (which is currently hovering around the poverty line for many pensioners) and insufficient allowances to meet soaring costs for things that are essential to keep body and soul together, something has to give. So, will it be food or fuel?

Even before the current crisis appeared on the horizon, older people were struggling to heat their homes. Between 1,500 and 2,000 more deaths occur during the winter in Ireland than during the summer. Ireland has one of the highest numbers of excess winter mortality in Europe.

In addition to their low incomes, some pensioners live in poorly insulated, older buildings. Heaping disadvantage upon disadvantage, one in five fuel-poor households reports that at least one of its members has a long-standing illness.

Pensioners living alone are among those who face greatest difficulties meeting their heating bills. More than one-in-four pensioners currently live alone. The Vincentian Partnership research shows that their living costs are 73 per cent of the costs of a couple. They spend 17 per cent of their income on heat and fuel, compared to just 12 per cent for a couple.

Should older people opt to cut back on fuel this winter, they face dangers. Medical research has found that when temperatures fall below 16 degrees there is an increased risk of respiratory problems. When it drops below 12 degrees, there is an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.

At this stage only urgent and targeted action by Government can avert these impending problems. Age Action believes the fuel allowance needs to be increased from €18 to €30 (to cover 70 per cent of the fuel costs of pensioners during the 30-week payment period.)

However, even this increase may come too late for the most frail and vulnerable, as they would not receive the increased payment until January 2009. Age Action believes the situation is so serious that the increased payments need to be introduced in October. This may require a supplementary estimate, but the situation warrants such a response.

The increased tax revenues generated by the rising fuel prices should be ring-fenced to provide some protection to the most vulnerable.

The Government can also be more imaginative in the way it handles the fuel allowance. Instead of paying it weekly, it should look to pay it in two lump sums, in October and January. This would enable pensioners with domestic oil systems to be able to fill their tanks.

Our leaders must also revisit the Living Alone Allowance. It was introduced in 1977 as an anti-poverty measure, but has not been increased since 1996.

The need for such a payment is considerable in the face of the current problems. The payment currently stands at €7.70 per week (€10 for those aged over 80).

The State pension must also be increased in order to provide some protection to all pensioners from rising food and fuel costs.

There is considerable strain on the public finances and the Government will come under pressure in the coming months to meet the demands of powerful lobby groups.

While they are unlikely to hear from the most vulnerable of older people, these are the people who will look most to our politicians for leadership and protection.

Their message is simple: nobody should have to choose between fuel and food this winter.

• Eamon Timmins is head of advocacy and communications at the charity for older people, Age Action. It runs an information service at 01-4984746 from 9.30am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday. Further details from