Six out of 10 pensioners in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes adequately, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Shocking new figures also show that over half of local senior citizens aged between 60 and 74 are living in fuel-poor homes — meaning that over 10% of household income is being spent just to keep warm.
The 2011 House Condition Survey, which has just been released, offers its preliminary results on fuel poverty across the province, and they make for grim reading.
With more and more elderly people forced to choose between heating and eating, this newspaper’s Feel the Benefit drive, which is part of Age NI’s Spread the Warmth campaign, aims to encourage at least 100 senior citizens to check what they are entitled to.
Calculations by Age NI suggest that a successful benefits check can boost a pensioner’s weekly income by an average of £62 — or £3,224 a year.
That means £6,200 in weekly unclaimed benefits could be released in just five days; and £322,400 overall.
The results of a survey show that the number of households in fuel poverty has increased by 21% since 2004, while there has been a 13% hike in the total percentage of fuel poor 60-74-year-olds in Northern Ireland.
One in four (42%) of households here were defined as being fuel poor in 2011 — that’s up 18.1% from 23.9% in seven years.
Fuel poverty has been consistently on the rise across the province, but last year’s results show a marginal decrease.
However, the problem remains significantly greater here than elsewhere in the UK, where the average is 18.6%.
Households are considered to be in ‘fuel poverty' if they have to spend more than 10% of their household income on fuel to keep their home in a ‘satisfactory' condition.
It is a measure which compares income with what the fuel costs should be rather than what they actually are. Whether a household is in fuel poverty or not is determined by three key factors: the cost of energy; the energy efficiency of the property (and therefore, the energy required to heat and power the home); and household income.
Age NI strategic policy advisor Bernadette Maginnis said that problems associated with fuel poverty should not be taken lightly.
“Generically, poverty among older people is sitting at around 23%,” she said.
“In terms of fuel poverty among the elderly, it’s just under 61%.
“For the first time in five years there has been a very marginal decline in fuel poverty and we welcome that.
“But, comparing the figures for the rest of the UK, the problem is much worse in Northern Ireland.”
Mrs Maginnis said that the high dependency of local households (64%) on oil was one of the main reasons for the discrepancy.
She added: “Benefit dependency is higher here and incomes are lower than in the rest of the UK and these are also connected to the high incidence of fuel |poverty.
“Similarly, there is a problem with energy-inefficient homes.”
Older people are dependent on benefits for survival because after they hit 60, they are, by and large, beyond working age.
Age NI is hoping to see an increase in the number of senior citizens who are entitled to benefits but aren’t accessing them, by encouraging them to contact its helpline.
“That way they will be able to afford more fuel to heat their homes |and benefit uptake could help them onto other schemes such as the Warm Home Scheme,” Mrs Maginnis added.