Mark H Durkan on the stark choice our pensioners have to heat or eat

Mon, 07/11/2011 - 16:50 -- Editor

Aiding the most vulnerable in society has always been a priority for the SDLP and we are committed to continuing to prioritise those most in need in our next chapter. The importance of tackling fuel poverty as matter of urgency centres on the blunt fact that almost 1,000 deaths occurred last winter primarily due to freezing temperatures.

The North of Ireland is comparably worse off than any part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Some 44% of households in the North are living in fuel poverty and 13% are living in extreme fuel poverty. This is completely unacceptable and inhumane. We are compelled to protect not only the 13% that the department has highlighted as our greatest concern, but to take action to lift all peoples out of poverty.

Currently pensioners are faced with the decision to choose whether to heat or eat. This is simply unacceptable in this current age in a developed society. The social protection fund was envisaged as a tool with which to protect our most vulnerable citizens from the most severe of cuts from Westminster, however it in itself has been sufficiently cut in our budget as to render it virtually negligible.

More money must be allocated to the provision of energy efficiency measures and projects such as the warm homes and boiler replacement schemes must be properly resourced and properly rolled out. We must protect the vulnerable and human need must prevail.

Our greatest problem in the North is the soaring prices of fuel, thus it is vital that we strive to get these prices down. 70% of home use oil heating here which has risen by 69% in the past two years. It has been concluded already by the previous Utility Regulator Douglas Mclldoon that energy prices are higher because 'policy is confused and contradictory'. We therefore call on the Minister for Social Development to address these contradictions.

Furthermore, it is not ideal or even satisfactory that winter fuel payments are made only to the elderly. One can think of other vulnerable groups across many constituencies, such as families with young children and people with serious health problems. As a member of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, I know that the extension of winter fuel payments will help alleviate the huge burden on the health service. This is exacerbated by very cold temperatures. John Hills Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics last month carried out an Interim report of fuel poverty. Hills concluded that living in a cold home has a series of effects on illness and mental health. Shockingly he announced that more people die per year as a result of living in a cold home than those whom are killed in road traffic accidents. The key point being, deaths by cold conditions are 100% preventable. We have a moral obligation to do our utmost to drive down fuel prices. We are obliged to continue to support the continuation of winter fuel payments and to work with the department of social development to develop a long term plan to retrofit homes.

We in the SDLP will continue working towards alleviating fuel poverty and protect our most vulnerable. The most cost-effective and sustainable way to tackle fuel poverty is to introduce energy efficiency measures. This is a long term goal. However in the meantime, we are duty-bound to act. I will endeavour to press the Minister in making our vision a reality and as a party we must appeal to Westminster to act to ease the suffering of so many, as a matter of urgency.