Poverty Policy Positions

older people in a meeting 

19% of older people in Northern Ireland are living in poverty compared to 16% in the UK overall.  (using the After Housing Costs figure, from the Households Below Average Income Report 2009-10, DSD)


The high levels of pensioner poverty in this country are a serious cause for concern and it is time to dedicate attention and focus to addressing this issue. Despite the introduction of ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Governments Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland’ in 2006 and ‘Ending Fuel Poverty – A Strategy for Northern Ireland‘ in 2004, levels of income poverty and fuel poverty have increased for older people.  Age NI wants a commitment to the elimination of income and fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

Income Poverty


The automatic payment of benefits would overcome the issue of pensioner poverty to some degree.  Research has estimated that an increase in the incomes of older people in poverty of about £80m a year would reduce pensioner poverty to less than 10%, down from 21% (the poverty rate in 2007-08) .  As this amount is not far from the amount of Pension Credit that is estimated to go unclaimed annually, the automatic payment of this benefit could have a significant impact on levels of pensioner poverty.

Automatic Payment of Benefits

Age NI believe that an innovative approach to benefit uptake is needed with the ultimate goal being automatic payment of pension credit.  A pilot exercise trialling the automatic payments, such as the one being conducted in Great Britain, would provide an ideal opportunity to raise awareness of entitlement and the claiming process.  Age NI believes that a pilot should be used as a measure to increase benefit uptake.

We would also highlight that failure to conduct a pilot exercise in Northern Ireland may result in the automatic payment of pension credit being implemented across Great Britain and not in Northern Ireland.  Despite parity (as a result of the Northern Ireland Act 1998) between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in payment of social security benefits, methods of administration are not subject to the same regulations. 

Effectively, payment could be made automatically in Great Britain and not in Northern Ireland.  Given higher levels of pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland, government needs to be proactive to ensure that this scenario does not arise. 

Fuel Poverty

 

The latest fuel poverty strategy published in March 2011contains little in the way of new measures and will therefore have minimal impact on rising fuel poverty levels in Northern Ireland. Some of the measures proposed in the strategy are welcome, but they don’t go far enough. The significant reduction in capital allocations for the Warm Homes Scheme, from £20million per year to £15million, appears to contradict the government's commitment to maintain vital programmes to address fuel poverty.
The Northern Ireland Government’s response to fuel poverty mainly focuses on energy efficiency measures (through the Warm Homes Scheme).  Whilst this is a key element, it should not be viewed as the cure-all to the fuel poverty problem.  Fuel poverty is a result of a combination of factors.  As such any fuel poverty strategy must attempt to address all of these factors. 

Social Tariffs

 
Energy efficiency and incomes are being addressed to some extent through the Warm Homes and benefit uptake initiatives but the third contributory factor to the fuel poverty problem - rising energy prices – must also be tackled.
Despite having higher levels of fuel poverty and higher energy costs than the rest of the UK, older people in Northern Ireland are not afforded the same level of protection as their counterparts in the Great Britain. Social tariffs are offered in the rest of the UK by law but are not required in Northern Ireland.
Energy Watch research has demonstrated that the costs of offering social tariffs can be relatively modest, need not be punitive to other low income customers, and would result in significant savings for those most in need. A cost benefit analysis needs to be prioritised which will take account of health savings accrued through fuel poverty measures. 
Given the serious health implications and high numbers of excess winter deaths, we would propose that older people in receipt of Pension Credit should be the focus of any affordability scheme. 
 

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Colin Flinn

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