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Fuel Poverty – The Human Cost of Expensive Fuel

Pensioners protest at Stormont
What is fuel poverty?
Dr John Healy and Dr Peter Clinch, two of Europe’s leading researchers in the field have defined ‘fuel poverty’ as being ‘the inability to heat the home adequately because of low household income and energy inefficient housing’ (Alleviating Fuel Poverty in Ireland, 1999). Other definitions link fuel poverty to household income, defining households that spend in excess of 10% of disposable income on heating as suffering from ‘fuel poverty’.

While there may be no universally accepted definition of what constitutes fuel poverty there is general agreement that fuel poverty is caused not only by low household income, but also by poor quality housing. Features of such housing may include little or no insulation, poor or non-existent damp proofing, poor quality or ill-fitting doors and windows. Fuel poverty disproportionately effects those on lower incomes, the old and those with disabilities.

How many people in Ireland are affected by fuel poverty?
The total number of households suffering from fuel poverty in Ireland is estimated to be greater than 500,000. This shocking statistic means that more than one million people live in homes that are inadequately heated on the island of Ireland.

What impact does fuel poverty have?
The Institute of Public Health in Ireland have stated that those experiencing fuel poverty are at increased risk of:

* respiratory illness
* increased blood pressure and stroke
* worsening arthritis
* accidents at home
* social isolation
* impaired mental health
* adverse effects on children’s education
* adverse effects on nutrition

Premature Deaths:
The most serious documented effect of fuel poverty is that of premature deaths from avoidable illnesses. Each winter the mortality rate in Ireland rises by roughly 20% when compared with the rate throughout the rest of the year (23% in the Twenty-Six Counties – Healy; ‘Action on Poverty Today, Winter 2005’ and 17% in the Six Counties – Excess Winter Mortality in Europe, 2002).

These deaths which are known as ‘excess winter deaths’ account for between 2,000 and 3,000 ‘extra’ deaths across the country each year. The rate of ‘excess winter mortality’ can vary dramatically with higher rates coinciding with periods of recession harsh winters and higher levels of influenza.

While it would be overly simplistic to suggest that all of these ‘extra’ deaths can be attributed directly to fuel poverty it is clear from recent research that fuel poverty is a significant contributory factor in many of these deaths.

These deaths which are known as ‘excess winter deaths’ account for roughly 3,000 ‘extra’ deaths across the country each year with between 1,500 and 2,000 of those being in the twenty-six counties (‘The Potential Health Benefits of Improving Household Energy Efficiency’ Clinch and Healy 2000) and the remainder in the six counties. The rate of ‘excess winter mortality’ can vary dramatically with higher rates coinciding with harsh winter and/or higher levels of influenza.

While it would be overly simplistic to suggest that all of these ‘extra’ deaths can be attributed directly to fuel poverty it is clear from recent research that fuel poverty is a significant contributory factor in many of these deaths.

What can be done?
Fuel poverty is caused by a combination of low income, high energy costs and poor housing. As such the elimination of fuel poverty can only occur by addressing all of the contributory factors.

Take Back the Gas:
fuel_povertyWhile thousands of Irish citizens are dying prematurely because they cannot afford to heat their homes the Dublin government is giving away billions of euros of Irish oil and gas to the international energy companies. The gas in the Corrib field alone is sufficient to meet much of Ireland’s needs for at least a decade but it will only be available to the Irish people at the same price as gas from the Ukraine or Russia.

The Dublin government should immediately begin a process of re-negotiation with the international energy companies to ensure that Irish oil and gas is made available to the people of Ireland at an affordable price. Failing to act will leave hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the fluctuations of the international energy markets.

Improve Housing Standards:
Measures need to be taken to ensure that all new house-builds meet the highest international standards in terms of insulation and energy efficiency. In addition a major government-led programme of retro-fitting of such measures to the existing Irish housing stock should be undertaken without delay.

Linking of ‘Fuel Allowances’ to Energy Prices:
All ‘Fuel Allowance’ and ‘Cold Weather’ and similar payments should be directly linked to the price of fuel and energy. As the price of fuel and energy increase (or decrease) appropriate adjustment in the payment of such payments should be made automatically.