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SVP pays out more on fuel and energy arrears

By editor - 19 March, 2013

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP) almost trebled the aid it spent for householder’s fuel costs between 2008 and 2011. Expenditure on fuel assistance by SVP has risen from €3.79 million a year in 2008 to €10.37million in 2011.

At an Energy Action conference Brendan Hennessy, Member Liaison Officer with SVP, told delegates that the Department of Social Protection (DSP) and the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) also had to provide significant assistance to households struggling with energy costs. The DSP spent €215 million in 2012 on Fuel Allowances to 400,000 people, while MABS recorded 4,666 utility cases between January and September 2012. In the same year, 16 per cent of all calls to the four largest SVP offices were for assistance with meeting fuel bills. Only requests for food, at 23 per cent, exceeded these.

Looking more closely at the issue, a survey by SVP of over 800 households in 2012, found that, of all the energy related payments provided 40 per cent related to electricity, 25 per cent to solid fuel, 24 per cent to oil and 11 per cent gas.

“The most used source of energy in the home by almost all is electricity. Electricity arrears, like gas, have become very substantial in the last five years. The expenditure on oil reflects both increases in price and the need for people to bulk-buy in advance, presenting a huge budgeting problem for low income households who simply cannot afford up-front oil fills each Autumn. Gas spend is lower than other sources in this survey as fewer people are on the network in the areas sampled,” said Brendan Hennessy.

SVP supports the use of Pay As You Go Meters (PAYGO) because they give householders more control over energy use and budgeting, allow customers to pay small sums on a regular basis and at times of their choosing via payment at local shops, and result in a slight overall reduction in energy use. However not all households are able to avail of PAYGO due to technical and housing considerations and certain health needs.

The majority of customers in arrears are currently in repayment or ‘instalment’ plans rather than PAYGO arrangements. Sometimes these repayment plans are too high and frequently lead to defaults. Repayment plans are problematic as two outgoings need to be paid by struggling households simultaneously: the repayment plan itself, and the current bill.

“To pay one is a struggle, but to pay both is very a tall order for those under financial pressure,” said a spokesperson for SVP which wants to see far more people with PAYGO meters and fewer on repayment plans.

SVP fully supports the Warmer Homes Strategy, in which progress on tackling arrears on energy bills was complemented by greater energy efficiency, but wants greater progress. Key actions required in 2013 include a voluntary code of practice for oil providers, an area based approach to energy efficiency, a time frame for minimal thermal standards in the private rented sector and a house condition survey.

SVP was just one participant at the two-day Energy Action conference on tackling fuel poverty in Europe which tooke place earlier in March in Dublin. The conference aimed to bring together fuel poverty researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from all over Europe to find areas of common ground and seek an EU-based model for addressing fuel poverty.

It is estimated that 65 million Europeans live in fuel poverty, which is associated with more than 30,000 winter deaths in Europe annually. The conference also heard that Irish fuel poverty is among the highest in Northern Europe. There are proportionately more winter deaths in Ireland than in countries with similar or colder climates, such as Denmark, Norway and Canada.

Age Action Ireland stated in 2011 that fuel poverty in Ireland may be responsible for up to 2,000 deaths per year. Age Action Ireland spokesperson, Emer Begley, linked over 1,500 winter deaths over 2009/2010 to elderly men and women living alone on low incomes and Ms Begley told the conference that the elderly tended “to respond to fuel poverty by rationing energy” and this in turn left them more vulnerable healthwise. Researchers believe the figures for deaths linked to cold-related illnesses were underestimated by up to twenty-five per cent.

by Ann Marie Foley