St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has had to treble its financial aid to families struggling to pay household fuel bills, a conference on fuel poverty has been told.
The charity’s outlay on fuel assistance rose from €3.79m in 2008 to €10.37m in 2011, its latest figures show.
In spite of SVP’s help, it is estimated that 1,200 people are dying as a direct result of fuel poverty every year.
In 2012, 16% of all calls to the four largest SVP offices were for help with meeting fuel bills. Only requests for food were higher at 23%.
The increased need for SVP’s support with heating bills is in spite of the fact the Department of Social Protection spent €215m on fuel allowances to 400,000 people in 2012.
SVP also said there has been a significant increase in the number of people whose electricity bills have fallen into arrears.
The charity’s head of social justice and policy, John-Mark McCafferty, said SVP supports the use of pay-as-you-go meters, as they give householders more control over their energy use and budgeting, and allows them to pay small amounts on a regular basis.
Those who fall behind in payments are being cut off.
Pat Rabbitte, the energy minister, acknowledged that some energy providers were being “over-rigorous” in their responses when people fell behind in their bills.
“Everyone should be able to afford to heat and power their homes to adequate levels,” Mr Rabbitte told the conference. “Providing energy efficiency improvements to homes in, or at risk of energy poverty, results in multiple benefits to recipients, including enhanced energy affordability, tangible health improvements, and overall wellbeing.”
The conference was also told a major problem was the quality of housing stock, with many homes built in the last 40 years having insufficient insulation.
Gerry McGeough of Energy Action said that community-based organisations (CBOs) that pioneer new ways of tackling fuel poverty are in danger of being squeezed out of government-funded programmes.
He said CBOs are better able to locate those who are most in need, generate employment, and ensure government funding is spent locally. Over 60,000 homes have been insulated to date by CBOs and there are 450 people employed by them.
Mr McGeough said: “We have well-established networks within communities based on a long history of delivering services. We also have good working relationships with local authorities, as well as other statutory and voluntary bodies.
“As not-for-profit bodies, we also ensure all funding goes to combating fuel poverty.”
The Government has been criticised for failing to reverse cuts to the fuel allowance as a temporary measure with a cold snap sweeping the country.
Tipperary TD Seamus Healy had asked Social Protection Minister Joan Burton to reconsider previous cuts to the allowance, with the latest cold weather increasing the impact of fuel poverty felt by many elderly people around the country.
Mr Healy, of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, said Ms Burton had refused. He said: “The cuts in heating units and in the heating period are cruel and unnecessary.”
Seán Moynihan, chief executive of the charity Alone, urged people to check on elderly neighbours during this bout of cold weather.
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