Coming soon... a fuel-poor household near you

Recent hefty increases in electricity and gas bills mean many people could go cold this winter
Gary McDonald Business Editor

IT'S a terrifying prospect to have to choose between putting your heating on this winter or feeding yourself and your family.

But that's the unthinkable scenario facing thousands of people in Northern Ireland as a “perfect storm” of a fuel crisis, pay crisis, goods crisis and a cost of living crisis, all at the same time, breezes into our living rooms.

Increases in what we pay for our electricity, gas, oil and groceries are common. Less so are the monster double-digit hikes we're seeing on an almost monthly basis.

The fact that gas supplier firmus energy has just lumped 33 per cent to bills, on top of a 14 per cent uplift in April, will add £250 a year to a household's running costs.

That's a fiver a week, which doesn't sound like much. But the reality is that it will hit hardest at those who can least afford it, and further push people into poverty.

Households are already under acute financial pressures, facing wage cuts or freezes during Covid-19, staring at heftier national insurance contributions, an imminent reduction in Universal Credit and, from today, the end of furlough.

Energy companies, to be fair, are hamstrung in that it's the wholesale portion which makes up around 90 per cent of end-user bills. Those costs have soared by 250 per cent since the beginning of 2021, with an increase of 70 per cent since August, according to the Oil & Gas UK trade body.

So it's out of companies' hands, and their bosses have apologised for it. But sometimes just saying or hearing 'sorry' doesn't cut it.

Consumer groups constantly tell us to consider switching suppliers and seek out better deals, though often that's simply jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Stormont must now grasp the nettle in response to spiralling energy costs and fuel poverty and, as suggested yesterday by MLA Andy Allen, establish a dedicated regional Fuel Poverty Fund similar to that in Scotland.

The fund is based around the Fuel Bank Foundation model, which provides a simple and timely intervention delivered at the point where individuals and households are in dire straits and have either run out of money to purchase energy, or have already self-disconnected.

Delivered in the community, largely through a network of volunteers, the Fuel Bank independent charity can top up people's meters, allowing the gas to start flowing and the lights to come back on again.

It shouldn't have to come to this. But sadly, just as food banks have become a feature of modern life, it looks like an energy equivalent will now be required to rescue the elderly, children and countless vulnerable people living in a fuel-poor household near you.

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